“You Can’t Bomb Knowledge”

Thirteen years ago I wrote a pair of articles on a similar theme. The first was entitled “Deterritorialized Threats and Risk Society — ToalDeterritorialThreats — which was published in the book Boundaries, Territory and Postmodernity (London: Frank Cass, 1999). The second was called “Understanding Critical Geopolitics: Geopolitics and Risk Society” — ToalUnderstandingCG — which was published in the book Geopolitics, Geography and Strategy (Frank Cass, 1999), edited by Colin Gray and Geoffrey Sloan. The theme was geopolitics and risk society (as theorized by Ulrich Beck). In the latter essay I wrote (p. 122):

The absurdity of bombing to stop certain states developing weapons of mass destruction illustrates the contemporary geopolitical condition, a world where either/or institutions are desperately trying to grapple with the risks and dangers of ‘and.’

The stimulus for that line was the 1998 bombing of Iraq by the United States. The argument sought to face a frightening contradiction. Weapons of mass destruction technology were part of World War II modernity and had diffused across the world. Great Power educational institutions and firms had helped incubate this knowledge and, in some cases, spread/share it through the world. As the cliche goes, one cannot put the nuclear genie back in the bottle. Yet, this was precisely what Great Powers were trying to do. They were, in a certain sense, fighting a war against ‘progress,’ against globalization and against their own techno-scientific institutions, commitments and values.

I recall this in the context of the latest turn in the saga between Israel (and the United States) and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, more specifically its attempt to develop sufficient enriched uranium that, should its leaders so choose, they could assemble a nuclear device in a matter of days/weeks. There is no evidence that they have chosen to do so but there is overwhelming evidence that they are enriching uranium. The Iranians see this as part of their legitimate pursuit of nuclear energy capacity.

The divide within Israel on this issue has surprised me. On the one hand, one has some “legendary” figures from the Israeli defense establishment. The most outspoken is Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad. David Remnick’s essay on him in the New Yorker is compelling reading. Dagan was behind the “Dubai Job” which involved a whole team of Mossad agents (some using Irish passports) murdering Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a fundraiser for Hamas, in a too-public way. On the other hand, one has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Dagan’s position is that any military strike on Iran would be counter-productive. One American summed up Dagan’s position thus:

What Dagan believes is that the key element to building a bomb is the knowledge, and you can’t bomb knowledge (quoted on p. 224 of David Sanger’s Confront and Conceal, also compelling reading).

Netanyahu has famously analogized the possibility of Iran acquiring a nuclear device to a Holocaust-like existential threat to the Jewish nation. But what’s somewhat amazing is that he’s gone further in openly inserting this issue into the US Presidential election, manifestly to aid his longtime friend (from the 1970s when both worked at the Boston Consulting Group) Mitt Romney. On 11 September he in effect criticized the Obama administration for refusing to draw a ‘red line’ on the Iranian nuclear issue. His precise statement was:

Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.

Perhaps given his well known cool relationship with Obama he believed he has nothing to loose and that AIPAC has Congress in a lock hold. I think that is tempting fate (Remnick’s latest piece on this is excellent). Obama’s considerable capacities for empathy will have been exhausted by that hour long phone call. “Mythomaniac” is an excellent description (and could be applied to other foreign leaders eager to insert their issues into US Presidential politics too). Part of it is the fusion of the Self as Hero and Nation as Transcendent; a leader constructs himself as the ultimate spokesperson for ‘his people’ and as a ‘man of destiny.’

Does the Israel defense complex really believe you can’t bomb knowledge? Dagan’s earlier deeds and the sticky bomb assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists suggest otherwise.

Some also within Israel’s current government evidently believe you can undermine and shut down knowledge you don’t like. The most disturbing evidence of this is the news in Haaretz of a decision to, in effect, shut down Ben Gurion’s Department of Politics (a unit established by the current dean and editor of the Boundaries, Territory and Postmodernity book cited above, David Newman) on grounds that appear to be about factors other than academia. This situation demands close attention. It calls into question Israel’s claim to be part of the West. Certainly, its a threat to Israel’s future. Since the link above doesn’t provide the full article here it is:

Left-leaning Israeli university department again threatened with closure

Council of Higher Education recommends shutting down Ben-Gurion University’s politics and government department.

By Talila Nesher | Sep.11, 2012 | 11:39 AM | 2

A subcommittee of the Council for Higher Education has recommended shutting down Ben-Gurion University’s politics and government department, in defiance of a professional opinion submitted by an international assessment panel.

The Subcommittee for Ensuring Quality, which submitted its recommendation last week, said that students shouldn’t be allowed to enroll in the department next September, and the education council should decide whether to reopen enrollment the following year based on the report of a monitoring committee to be established for this purpose. This proposal still requires approval by the full council.

But internal correspondence among the subcommittee members, which has been obtained by Haaretz, reveals that they knew this proposal contradicted the recommendations of the international assessment panel on which it was supposed to be based.

The subcommittee initially proposed closing the department, including hiring more faculty and expanding course offerings in core fields. To comply with these suggestions, the university hired three new faculty members and altered its curriculum. The assessors were then asked to evaluate its efforts.

Their conclusions, which Haaretz has obtained in Hebrew translation, began by congratulating the department for hiring three new faculty members in the fields of comparative politics, quantitative methods and political theory, as well as its plans to hire a fourth new faculty member in the coming year.

However, the document continued, to enable these young researchers to fill the department’s gaps properly, the department must ensure that they are given the time, resources and guidance needed to publish papers in peer-reviewed journals and get books published by university presses, as well as to carry out the department’s commitment to build a pluralistic curriculum.

In addition, it said, the department should increase the diversity of future faculty hires, with regard to both their working methods and their theoretical orientation.

Nothing in this document, which was supposed to be the basis for the subcommittee’s decision, recommends closing the department. But that is what the panel decided to do.

Ben-Gurion University said the changes it has made fulfilled the assessors’ demands and even earned their praise.

About Gerard Toal

I am an Irish born DC based Political Geographer researching Euro-Atlantic/Eurasia geopolitics and post-Soviet de facto states.
This entry was posted in Critical Geopolitics, Current affairs, Democracy, Geography and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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