No Mind Is Free If Others Can Flip It

WASHINGTON. — Washington. -- Until August 22, 1939, the American Communist Party was agitating urgently for U.S. rearmament to prepare for the war against European fascism. Then came the Hitler-Stalin pact. Within days the struggle in Europe became "an imperialist war in which the rulers of both sides are equally guilty." That was the CP's line until exactly June 22, 1941, when Hitler invaded Russia. Within days the CP was agitating once again for "defeat of Hitler and Hitlerism."

No doubt unfairly, I can't help being reminded of this legendary example of intellectual, er, flexibility by the recent and equally dramatic flip-flop performed by many American supporters of Israel -- including members of Congress -- on the subject of Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization. One day he and it are incorrigible terrorists with whom the United States should never, ever deal. The next day it's bear hugs and autographs in the corridors of Capitol Hill.


Yes, of course, there are all sorts of ways in which the analogy does not hold. Above all, Israel is an embattled democracy and ally of the United States; Stalin's Soviet Union was none of those things. Nevertheless, it is undeniably true that the sudden change of heart about Mr. Arafat in America was occasioned more by a sudden change of heart by the government of Israel than by the much more gradual change of heart by Mr. Arafat himself -- which has been going on in public for several years.

After all, a premise of the previous attitude was that any apparent change of heart by Mr. Arafat could not possibly be genuine. "Any comments [by Mr. Arafat] renouncing terrorism are tactical only," explained Senator Arlen Specter in 1990.


Still on the law books in the United States are what CQ Weekly describes as "a thick file of statutory condemnations and prohibitions" of the PLO, such as the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1987, which declares: "Congress determines that the PLO and its affiliates are a terrorist organization and a threat to the interests of the United States."

These will now be repealed. But can there be any doubt that if the Likud party had won the last Israeli election instead of Labor, and if the Israeli government was still pledged never to trade land for peace or deal with the PLO, senators would be climbing all over each other to renew those condemnations and prohibitions?

AIPAC, the Israel lobby, greeted news of the Rabin-Arafat Pact -- which caught it, like everyone else in America, by surprise -- with the statement: "We warmly welcome the historic decision of the PLO to renounce terror and confrontation with Israel and take the path of coexistence." But the PLO had claimed to renounce terror and accept Israel for a while. The "historic decision" was Israel's to take a chance and believe it.

Two contradictory lessons can be drawn from this exercise in historical analogy. One is for those who believe that Israel and its most adamant U.S. supporters were right the first time around: that the PLO was, is, and always will be a terrorist organization bent on destruction of the Jewish state. For them, the analogy to the Hitler-Stalin pact is simply that Mr. Arafat, like Hitler, is not to be trusted, and this deal with the devil will backfire.

An opposite lesson is for those of no special sympathy for the state of Israel, who believe the American ban on dealings with the PLO was absurd all along. For them, the analogy is that both episodes illustrate the error of letting your opinions be held in thrall by a foreign power. Your mind is not your own if someone several thousand miles away can flip it like a switch.

For myself, I draw neither of these conclusions, exactly. I have no special problem about deferring to the Israeli government's judgment about when the potential advantages of legitimizing the PLO are worth the potential risks, although I think that judgment could safely have been made years sooner. What bothers me is that supporters of Israel -- including myself -- rarely if ever put the issue in those strategic terms. The anathema on Mr. Arafat was expressed as a moral absolute: he is a terrorist who must never be dealt with. Then suddenly, one day, he wasn't a terrorist anymore. That is embarrassing.

There is nothing wrong with changing your mind. And the post-Cold War world offers thoughtful people of all political stripes dramatic opportunities for flip-flops. Militarist hawks can turn into isolationists; near-pacifist doves can turn into aggressive interveners. Free trade, strategic defense, the United Nations are all up for grabs.

But in this unfamiliar landscape, it is especially important to examine your premises regularly -- doctors recommend at least once every six months -- and make sure you're being straight with yourself.


If you were a great enthusiast for the contra war in Nicaragua and the invasion of Grenada who now opposes American intervention in Bosnia, that can be explained (among other ways) by the death of communism.

But were you perhaps being disingenuous -- or self-deluded -- in justifying your previous enthusiasms on the basis of humanitarian concern for the sufferings of foreigners? And shouldn't your view about whether the president needs congressional approval for military actions be independent of whether you yourself approve of such actions?

Similarly, if you used to be a dove and now find yourself making surprisingly hawkish noises, shouldn't you inventory your arguments, admitting that some old ones now seem erroneous and avoiding some new ones, however convenient to your present views?

Above all, shouldn't you be a bit suspicious of your own opinions if they change 180 degrees overnight?

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.