Quantcast

Ali Gharib | The Nation

  •  
Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib

Undiplomatic wrangling.

‘Good Kill’: Drone Pilots Get PTSD, Civilians Die Nameless

Good Kill

Good Kill (IFC Films)

A war movie about a US drone pilot seems counterintuitive. A joystick and some computer screens in a shipping container–sized office cube outside Las Vegas—it ain’t exactly the stuff of a Hollywood action thriller. But that’s just the setting director Andrew Niccol gives us in his new drama Good Kill, which opened in theaters on Friday.

The film, written and directed by Niccol, follows Maj. Tommy Egan, an Air Force pilot who used to fly fighter planes, played by a convincing Ethan Hawke, at the height of the escalation of the drone war around 2010. Unmanned aerial vehicles, as drones are properly known, are becoming all the rage. War from a safe distance—“We’ve got no skin in the game,” Egan complains at one point—has its obvious appeal, and everyone at the base on the Las Vegas outskirts knows it. Egan’s commanding officer at one point tells a group of new recruits, “Drones aren’t going anywhere. In fact they’re going everywhere.”

The increase in drone attacks coincided with a more active CIA role in the program; in the film, a disembodied voice referred to only as “Langley” calls in strikes and communicates with the drone pilots’ cubicle via speakerphone, making repeated decisions that the “collateral damage”—civilian casualties—is worth it to blow up some “high-value target” or another. And, with the CIA’s more prominent role, civilian casualties do indeed climb. “Splash,” the drone pilots say after each explosion, followed by a less and less enthusiastic echo of “good kill,” giving the film its title.

The falling enthusiasm of some, far from all, of the drone operators gives the movie its tension. Though not a typical war movie—the explosions happen, without any audio, on a screen within a screen—Good Kill does explore what has become a common theme of today’s war films: post-traumatic stress disorder. This, like the civilian casualties, which are ripped right from headlines, is a real phenomenon: A 2013 study found drone pilots are just as likely as pilots in manned aircraft to suffer PTSD.

Hawke’s Tommy Egan drinks more and more heavily, and keeps a sprawling emotional distance from his wife, played by January Jones in a fine performance as the military wife. Jones is happy to have her husband home from long engagements abroad, but discovers slowly that he’s not so pleased to be fighting a war on office hours and returning to suburban life with two kids by evening. Egan stops at the convenience store several times in the film—a trope of PTSD in movies, but given a little extra punch in that the pilot is driving his Mustang home directly from waging war: “I blew up six Taliban in Pakistan today,” he tells the clerk. “Now I’m going home to barbecue.”

The entire film takes place in just a handful of locations: on base, at home, in the liquor store, in the car in between and, for one unnecessary scene, in a Vegas strip club. That latter moment serves mostly to heighten the sexual tension between Egan and a young airman played by Zoë Kravitz, who becomes Egan’s co-pilot. The airman—the Air Force uses the masculine for both sexes—seems to be little more than a sounding board for Egan’s moral concerns. But Kravitz’s acting stinks, and no wonder: She’s burdened by perhaps the worst writing in the film, including a cringeworthy pick-up line delivered to Hawke as the film winds down.

It’s particularly a shame because Hawke’s quiet acting is good enough to convey the emotional and moral weight that the movie centers on. Niccol’s best previous efforts—namely the sci-fi flick Gattaca (1997), which also stars Hawke, and The Truman Show (1998), which Niccol wrote—raise their big questions without ever needing to spell them out to the viewer.

Then there’s the big question Good Kill itself presents. Egan’s descent into PTSD drives the film—it is borne of boredom and propelled by the growing tally of civilian deaths on the other side of those monitors. And while drone pilots, as any other veterans, deserve our most sincere sympathies and society’s care, one can’t help but get the feeling that, though Hawke and Kravitz’s characters are burdened by the civilian drone victims, the Pakistanis and Yemenis who die are but bit players in the drama of the American military men and women thousands of miles away. We never learn any of their names. We see that they are women and children on the screen, but there’s no depth beyond that. We never learn of their PTSD because they die almost as quickly as they appear on screen; the shots of them wandering too close to targets of missiles already let loose last about as long as the camera lingers on their dead bodies.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Though the story is novel in that it deals with the anti-action of a drone operator’s cubicle, I’m left wanting for a more novel anti-story: that as told from the perspective of the brown people getting bombed.

That criticism might be a bit unfair, however. The warring while at a distance from war is itself a central theme of Good Kill. And Niccol’s clearly deep research will yield a fruit of knowledge for the average American viewer; they will know their nation has sinned even without any foreign names in the film. And anyone who’s met a war correspondent will know how difficult these stories can be to pitch—editors simply prefer stories about the Americans abroad, not the people those Americans are making war on. One imagines sources of financing in the film industry are even more shrewd.

Nonetheless, this drama deserves to be seen by both those interested by America’s conflicts in the age of the remote war, and those who know too little of it. The toll taken on our own fighters—tele-warriors or not—needs more attention; Niccol’s sensitive portrait, buoyed by Hawke’s acting, delivers some. And the viewer will get, at least, that the drone war’s only costs aren’t PTSD for American fighters; they will also understand how counterproductive the drone war could turn out to be. In another too obvious line delivered by Kravitz’s character, the upstart drone pilot reacts to yet another obvious civilian death: “We are a regular fucking terrorist factory. Best recruitment tool A Qaeda ever had.”

 

Read Next: Ali Gharib on ethnic cleansing in Syria

Was the US Complicit in Ethnic Cleansing in Syria?

Kerry on Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry testifies on Capitol Hill about military intervention in Syria in September 2013 (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The latest news from the US-led war in Syria against the Islamic State, known as ISIS, ought to give Americans some pause about our intervention there. When the Obama administration stipulated that its modus operandi for the covert war of targeted killing—that there needed to be a “near certainty” no civilians would be killed (however poorly the policy is implemented)—didn’t apply to Syria, it raised eyebrows. A report by McClatchy on Wednesday indicates that not only are the civilian casualties mounting, but points to the US-led coalition, perhaps unwittingly, helping a Kurdish militia carry out ethnic cleansing and a possible war crime.

The first batch of civilian casualties came early on in the Syria campaign launched last September: while targeting a terrorist bomb maker, air strikes killed at least seven civilians, Human Rights Watch said at the time. As the sporadic bombings continued, civilian deaths slowly mounted; an opposition human rights group said in March that coalition forces had caused more than 100 civilian deaths in Syria. (Others have placed the number of confirmed deaths at around 60.)

Then, over one half-hour period last Thursday night, coalition-caused civilian deaths spiked: an initial report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said missile strikes in the village Bir Hamalli killed least 50 civilians from among the village’s 1000 inhabitants; the following day, it raised the toll to 64 confirmed deaths, including 31 children and 19 women. Yesterday, another rights group, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, corroborated the numbers, adding incredibly troubling details of how the attack was carried off.

Mousab Alhamadee of the indispensable McClatchy news agency tied together the Network’s release with his own reporting:

An activist, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity for his safety, told McClatchy last week that he suspected that members of the local Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG in the Kurdish language, which had worked closely with the United States during the fight for Kobani, had intentionally called in the strike to drive away Arab residents.

Alhamadee went on to note that the US military had confirmed a Kurdish role in intelligence gathering for the strike: the militia had—apparently incorrectly—“reported there were no civilians present in that location and that there had not been any civilians present for two weeks prior to the coalition airstrikes,” a US spokesman had said. (The Syrian Network reported that the village was under ISIS’s control, but that the jihadi group doesn’t have any bases there.)

The account proffered to Alhamadee by the Syrian Network was even more troubling: “When two fuel trucks entered the town, the network said residents had reported, the YPG opened fire with tracer rounds. When villagers gathered to aid those wounded by the YPG fire, coalition aircraft fired missiles.”

Whoa, Nelly! If this report is accurate—it’s admittedly thinly sourced, as is so much reporting about what’s happening on the ground in Syria—Kurdish militias are calling in US bombings to deliberately murder civilians, with the aim of ethnically cleansing Arab villages. And the US is obliging them. (The US denied any civilian casualties, leading one of the rights groups to express shock at the denial.) The tactic seems to have worked: most of Bir Mahalli’s residents reportedly fled.

Wars are always confusing affairs—that cliché about fog springs to mind. Mistakes are made; civilians inevitably die. Journalists and historians often find themselves unable to unearth whole truths even after the dust clears. But some previously obscured lessons, at least for the conduct of war itself, seem to always emerge as conflicts settle down, as the heat of the moments where life and death decisions are pass into reflection and studies of patterns.

One such pattern apparent in America’s new modes of warfare—a “light-footprint” of limiting “boots on the ground,” or air campaigns that seek to further minimize risk to US personnel, whether covert drone attacks or overt airstrikes—consist of poor targeting practices exacerbated by alliances with dubious, self-interested local actors. The pitfalls were evident in the Iraq war from the get-go, thanks to an over-reliance on the huckster Ahmed Chalabi for the justification to war.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

In his critically acclaimed book No Good Men Among the Living, journalist Anand Gopal elucidated a theme of how unsavory local allies in Afghanistan may have cost the US its best chance of actually winning the war. His account weaves in and out of stories of US-allied strongmen falsely accusing local rivals of belonging to the Taliban, prompting the Americans to take many Afghans prisoner or, worse, attack and kill them on faulty premises. As resentment grew, disaffected Taliban fighters who’d laid down arms after the US invasion picked them back up—and were joined by a host of new supporters fed up by US-sponsored warlordism.

What’s so extraordinarily troubling about the new McClatchy report on Syria, then, is that the US seems to not have been chastened at all by its experiences. “Whether allegations hold, it demonstrates dangers of relying heavily on local actors. YPG get good press but local politics don’t go away,” Daniel Trombly noted astutely on Twitter. But, as Gopal demonstrated, we should have already learned that lesson in the past decade (and so many times before).

The lack of reliable allies has vexed thoughtful proponents of US intervention in Syria from the start, and given ammunition to its opponents, myself included. Despite proclamations by war hawks, their has never been an obvious military ally for the US in Syria’s civil war. The Free Syrian Army has from the beginning of the war been an ill-defined, loose organization, at best, with some factions demonstrating criminal intent all along. The Kurds in Syria, the closest thing to natural American allies, are today demonstrating the same thing.

Now we’re involved, at least narrowly in the fight against ISIS, and the results have been predictable. Rebel activists told the Financial Times last week, “US-led strikes are turning people against the western-backed rebels and the coalition. They say it drives many closer to the group the coalition is fighting, the Islamic State.” No wonder American foreign wars these days last forever: our conduct perpetuates them.

 

Read Next: Ali Gharib on how a cult leader addressed Congress on ISIS and Iran

Cult Leader Will Tell Congress: Fight ISIS by Regime Change in Iran

Maryam Rajavi

Maryam Rajavi, co-leader of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and president-elect of the National Council of Resistence of Iran (Reuters/Vincent Kessler)

Last week, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade announced that a controversial Iranian exile opposition figure would be testifying via video uplink at a hearing on the Islamic State, known as ISIS. What does the witness, Maryam Rajavi, a co-leader of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), have to say about the subject at hand?

Rajavi’s written testimony, a copy of which was obtained by The Nation, focuses on an unexpected way of bringing ISIS to heel: by fostering regime change in Iran. “The ultimate solution to this problem” of Islamic extremism, such as ISIS, Rajavi says in the written statement, “is regime change by the Iranian people and Resistance”—a reference to the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the MEK’s political wing.

It sounds counter-intuitive—Iran’s aid to the Iraqi government and various Iraqi militias, after all, is widely credited with stopping ISIS’s advances there—but not when you know about the MEK’s tortuous past. Over the years, the MEK has been nothing if not opportunistic; animated by the twisted logic that the enemy of its enemy is its friend, the group seizes whatever political angle is fashionable at the moment to bring them relevance (Congress is happy to oblige). But more to the point, the MEK has always had only one goal: the overthrow of the Iranian regime. For decades, it has tried to shoehorn regional and geopolitical dynamics into its aim, irrespective of any salient connections.

The plan to bring down ISIS by toppling Iran’s government, then, is little more than the latest chapter of group’s 50-year history of monomaniacally trying to install itself atop the Iranian government. Indeed, Rajavi is testifying at Congress with the title of “president-elect” of the NCRI, which hopes to run a transitional government immediately upon the fall of the Islamic Republic.

Founded as an Islamo-Marxist revolutionary group in the 1960s, the MEK spent its early years pursuing its quixotic aims by opposing the Shah’s government with a vengeance: through student organizing, outright terrorism—including against American targets when the United States was allied with the Shah, helping to earn its 1997 American designation as a terror group—and fighting at the vanguard of the Islamic Revolution. By the 1980s, after the leader of the revolution, Ruhollah Khomeini, kicked the group out of Iran, critics were regularly deriding the MEK as a cult of personality—not least because of its continuing “wacky” behavior, as a former congressional aide put it to me for a feature I wrote this winter with Eli Clifton.

So how do Rajavi and MEK plan to end the threat from ISIS by upending the Iranian regime? That’s not so clear. But it definitely involves ignoring, despite the current clashes, the distinction between Sunni and Shia extremism—including, for example, propagandistic exaggerations like saying that “Shiite militias act more viciously than their Sunni equivalents, such as ISIS”—and pointing out several times that Iran went Islamist before anyone else. That’s about it.

It’s worth noting, however, that the MEK does have some experience in Iraq: after going into exile, its leaders gathered their fighters in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, to take his side in the Iran-Iraq war—earning the enmity of many Iranians. After the war ended, the MEK, led by Maryam Rajavi and her husband Massoud (who hasn’t been seen in public for a dozen years), stuck around and enjoyed Hussein’s largesse, acting, periodically, as mercenaries to crush incipient uprising against the Iraqi strongman—earning, in turn, the enmity of many Iraqis.

After Hussein’s fall in 2003, the American invaders stripped the MEK of its multitude of arms. (Curiously, for a group that claims to have renounced violence in 2001, Rajavi cites in her Congressional testimony the “disarming” of the MEK as a “misguided polic[y]” that helped give rise to Muslim extremism—but not the invasion that toppled their benefactor itself.) The MEK then languished in its camps, coming under periodic attack by a murky combination of the Iraqi army and, reportedly, government-aligned Shia militias. Dozens of MEK adherents were slaughtered.

The period also marked the growth of an ardent pro-MEK lobby in the United States. As Eli Clifton and I detailed in our Intercept piece this winter, a multimillion-dollar campaign kicked into gear to remove the MEK from the US State Department’s terrorist list. Once that hurdle was cleared, the MEK—despite its cult-like practices—began to accumulate more mainstream power in Congress, where super-hawkishness against Iran is guaranteed to attract powerful bedfellows, including large amounts of pro-Israel donor money and more modest cash from MEK supporters themselves.

Meanwhile, the massacres of the MEK’s ex-fighters at its Iraqi desert bases fueled the group’s hatred of the Iraqi government led by Nouri al-Maliki, which had failed to protect them. Just as the MEK had grown close to Hussein because he was an arch-enemy of the Iranian regime, the group likewise reviled Maliki’s government, and vice-versa, for its closeness to the Iranians—the Islamic Republic had hosted and fostered Maliki’s movement in exile before the 2003 war, and supported his Shia government after its rise to power in Iraq.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

When ISIS began to rip apart what was still then Maliki’s Iraq, the MEK’s prevailing logic seemed to again fall back on the enemy of its enemy. Perhaps chastened by their own labeling by the US as a terrorist organization, the group seldom uses the word “terrorism” in conjunction with ISIS. Instead, MEK propaganda refers to ISIS as “extremists,” in some instances. At other times, the language is more ambiguous: Last June, when ISIS took the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, one MEK website gave a triumphalist account of the conquest, referring to ISIS as “revolutionary forces.”

Historical revisionism of the ISIS assault started almost immediately. “These forces have taken over the Badoush prison and they had hundreds of prisoners that had been proclaimed to be terrorists and they freed them,” read a Persian-language post on the website Mojahedin.org. HRW, however, collected survivor testimonies from the prison takeover that told a different story: “After seizing Badoush Prison near Mosul, the gunmen from Islamic State, also known as ISIS, separated the Sunni from the Shia inmates,” an HRW release said, “then forced the Shia men to kneel along the edge of a nearby ravine and shot them with assault rifles and automatic weapons.”

Herein lies the MEK contradiction behind its early positions. On the one hand, ISIS, like the MEK, is militantly opposed to Iranian influence in the region. But Rajavi needs to gin up support in Washington. So she poses herself in opposition to ISIS, claiming the best strategy for fighting the marauding Sunni terrorists is to… overthrow the first regime in the region to commit blood, money and heavy weaponry to the fight against ISIS.

As ISIS became the world’s most famous terrorist group, the MEK eased its whitewash and adopted the stances Rajavi will bring to Congress on Thursday: namely, that ISIS is an extremist group—whose model and inspiration is Iran, however nonsensical that point is. That Congress would invite these ex-terrorists—Rajavi’s past prevents her from getting a visa, the reason for her video testimony—speaks ill of their commitment to shaping serious policy on either ISIS or Iran. Rajavi’s participation proved such an embarrassment that a distinguished diplomat, Ambassador Robert Ford, and another witness withdrew from the hearing rather than speak alongside her on the dais—just as the top UN official for human rights in Iran withdrew from a program last year in Canadian parliament where Rajavi was set to appear.

The MEK’s story is a tragic one of sustained failure, of being massacred and massacring, of being abused and abusing its own people, of terrorizing and being terrorized, and of a constantly morphing politics consistent only in its oddness and toxicity. That story needs to be heard, but as a cautionary tale, not as expert advice. Instead, Congress is asking one of the groups most hated in Iraq and Iran what to do about those countries’ woes. What could go wrong?

 

Read Next: Ali Gharib on AIPAC vs. the neocons on Iran

AIPAC vs. the Neocons on Iran

Bill Kristol

Bill Kristol (CC BY 2.0)

There’s a fascinating divide emerging over the Corker-Cardin compromise bill that would give Congress a vote on an Iran deal and which unanimously emerged from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. The compromise, engineered by committee chair Bob Corker (R-TN) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-MD), softened some provisions in Corker’s original bill. With Democrats supporting the bill, the White House perhaps saw the writing on the wall and dropped its opposition—and veto threat—against the new version.

Now, though, Republican hawks in Congress are looking to weigh the bill down with amendments that would certainly invoke a veto. The charge is being led by Sen. Tom Cotton, the combative Arkansas Republican who has emerged as the upper chamber’s most vociferous Iran hawk. Cotton has vowed to introduce several amendments that would make congressional approval of any Iran nuclear deal virtually impossible. Several other Republican senators have promised to do the same.

What’s so fascinating is that AIPAC supports the Corker-Cardin compromise. The flagship Israel lobby group likely sees the bill, which creates a procedure for Congress to vote approval or disapproval of a final Iran nuclear accord, as a good first step to kill the deal it has opposed from the start. The logic would be that enacting Corker-Cardin would lay the groundwork, then the lobby would set about trying to convince enough Democrats to support its anti-diplomacy position to get Congress to vote down the final agreement when that time comes.

A piece today in Bloomberg View headlined the fight between the Israel lobby and the Republican über-hawks as “Aipac vs. Pro-Israel Republicans.” But it would more accurately be called “AIPAC vs. the Neocons.” And we shouldn’t forget for a moment that the bankrupt ideology of neoconservatism is behind these efforts; the line between leading neocons and this obstructionism is too easy to trace—and too laughably reminiscent of their misadventure in Iraq.

Cotton, after all, is a protégé of neoconservative don Bill Kristol. And Kristol has come out firing at the Corker-Cardin compromise. In a Weekly Standard editorial later distributed by his attack-dog letterhead group the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), Kristol labeled the compromise bill “at worst misleading, at best toothless,” denouncing Corker and “the leading establishment pro-Israel lobbying group”—AIPAC—for their support of it.

Kristol couched his call for “implant(ing) teeth in the legislation’s clammy gums” as a way to avoid conflict: “Perhaps future wars in the Middle East can be made less likely,” he mused. Who does he think he’s kidding? Kristol has already called for war with Iran! Cotton, for his part, has been totally frank about opposing any deal with Iran whatsoever, not simply seeking a “better deal.” And Cotton’s alternative? He has said war with Iran will be easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy—or, if you prefer to harken back to the drumming for war with Iraq, a cakewalk. (Kristol’s ECI—which, speaking of Iraq, was birthed in the same office as the neoconservative Committee to Liberate Iraqthrew a million dollars behind Cotton’s Senate campaign.)

As Jim Lobe noted, all this comes as Republican presidential hopefuls—some of whom in the Senate are set to introduce their own compromise-killing measures—are getting ready to prostrate themselves before Sheldon “Nuke Iran” Adelson, the Republican mega-donor and hard-line Likudnik that funds a virtual who’s who of Washington’s network of neocon think tanks and anti-Iran diplomacy groups. Adelson demands of his beneficiaries total fealty to his extraordinarily hawkish pro-Israel views (he even publicly upbraided AIPAC, which he has funded to the tune of millions, over the group’s support for George W. Bush’s short-lived Annapolis process for Israeli-Palestinian peace).

That tidbit of a fact helps to place some of this maneuvering (some might say posturing) in an important historical context. For the neocons, what’s wrong with the Corker-Cardin compromise is not the compromise itself, but rather who it was with: namely, Democrats. There’s a long history that we needn’t get into here (check out Dan Luban’s excellent review of neoconservatism’s history for some of it and Norman Podhoretz’s disappointment in Jewish Democrats for another angle), but suffice to say that neoconservatives have realized for some years now that Democrats, especially staunchly liberal Democrats, are too squishy on foreign policy to be good allies. A lot of it boils down to Democrats just not being excited enough for foreign wars.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

And so the neoconservatives and their closest allies in the far-right pro-Israel world hammer away at anything that Democrats have touched; the rejectionism and obstructionism of the Tea Party makes for a fine comparison to the way neocons treat moderate Republicans on foreign policy, not to mention the Democrats they would work with. And AIPAC has not been immune: my old boss Peter Beinart has documented this well in instances like the 2012 Democratic convention Jerusalem platform fight and the Chuck Hagel nomination row. The neocons want to pull AIPAC—with all its clout and money—into the Republican fold because they think bipartisan Middle East hawkishness is, not to put too fine a point on it, bullshit.

AIPAC seems pretty freaked out about it, and who can blame them: they’re losing. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu started really alienating Democrats with his constant, cocksure interventions into the American debate over Iran—not to mention effectively endorsing the Republican in the 2012 US election—and kept driving coffin nails with his racist election tactics. The GOP, however, is eating it all up. What’s more, the big pro-Israel money, particularly but not limited to Sheldon Adelson, is firmly committed to yanking the GOP right on Israel—and that’s working, too!

In the case of the Iran bill, this is likely to hamper neoconservatives and AIPAC alike in their efforts to squash an Iran nuclear deal. If any of the negotiation-killing amendments are added to the Corker-Cardin bill, hawkish Democrats are going to squirm but eventually sustain President Obama’s veto. The naked partisanship of the neocons’ machinations are so obvious that it’ll be an easy decision, even for hawkish Democrats like Chuck Schumer. This would be just the latest instance where GOP partisanship has staved off a congressional affront to Obama’s diplomacy.

But it’s still worth noting that causes considered “pro-Israel”—and make no mistake that killing an Iran deal is, in Washington, a pro-Israel cause—are increasingly being conflated with doctrinaire neoconservatism and taken up solely by Republicans. This is the battle neocons are winning—but being the ideologues that they are, Kristol and his comrades will be satisfied with nothing short of total victory in the war. Which, in the case of Iran, would be launching an actual one.

Read Next: Ali Gharib on how NBC knowingly let Syria rebels’ false war propaganda stand for years

How NBC Knowingly Let Syria Rebels’ False War Propaganda Stand For Years

Richard Engel

NBC's Richard Engel and his team appear on The Today Show on December 18, 2012, hours after their release. (NBC News)

An NBC News journalist is involved in a harrowing scene of battlefield danger. The journalist’s first-person story serves as the dominant narrative for years—but it turns out to be wrong, very wrong. Sound familiar? This isn’t the Brian Williams scandal. It’s worse: the story of the December 2012 kidnapping and rescue of Richard Engel, NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, in Syria.

The prevailing narrative held that, as Engel reported immediately after he was freed, a group of Shia militiamen loyal to Basher Assad’s embattled government had kidnapped and mistreated the star reporter and his colleagues. Engel pointed to the language his captors used and other pronounced signs of their allegiances, ranging from graffiti scrawled on the wall of their prison to the coffee cups they drank from.

But the narrative was false, a set-up by a Sunni rebel group opposing Assad. That much became clear on Wednesday night, when NBC quietly posted a piece to its website where Engel corrected the record. “The group that kidnapped us was Sunni, not Shia,” Engel wrote. Curiously, the piece is posited as producing “new details” about the attack, not as a correction; there was no retraction of or apology for earlier errors in reporting, as is customary.

Far from answering all the questions about the episode, Engel’s update piece did not give a full accounting of the story from NBC’s perspective. Those gaps were filled, in part, by a subsequent report in The New York Times. The resulting picture looks very bad for NBC, in many ways worse than Brian Williams’s fall from grace due to self-aggrandizement of his now-infamous helicopter incident in Iraq. This was war propaganda spread by NBC, a respected institution in American news. And if the Times’s account is to be believed, the network let the false story stand for years knowing full well that it was at least questionable, if not entirely false.

In Engel’s clarification of his original version story, he wrote:

About a month ago, we were contacted by The New York Times. The newspaper had uncovered information that suggested the kidnappers were not who they said they were and that the Syrian rebels who rescued us had a relationship with the kidnappers.

But in the Times story that subsequently hit the Internet, some part of NBC’s operation was well aware of the doubts over the culpability of pro-Assad forces (with my emphasis):

NBC executives were informed of [known Sunni rebels’] possible involvement during and after Mr. Engels’s captivity, according to current and former NBC employees and others who helped search for Mr. Engel, including political activists and security professionals.

Engel explained in his update piece that the “group that kidnapped us put on an elaborate ruse to convince us they were Shiite Shabiha militiamen.” That may be so, and one can hardly blame Engel, amid and immediately following his ordeal, for falling for such a ruse and reporting what he believed to be the facts upon his release. As any conflict correspondent can tell you, the fog of war is very real for journalists working in war zones, and discerning the truth can be difficult.

What’s difficult to fathom is how NBC executives who had this information allowed Engel’s report to air without immediately getting on the phone to demand that the story be walked back. Such a move would only have been appropriate considering the information that they had themselves gathered (detailed by the Times) and, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out yesterday, the fact that at least two prominent voices—the popular blogger As’ad AbuKhalil and the Daily Beast’s Jamie Dettmer—had cast serious doubt on the involvement of pro-Assad militias.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Why is this so much more serious than the Brian Williams scandal? At stake in l’affaire Williams was merely the reputation of a veteran journalist—Williams himself—and not decisions of war and peace for the United States. In the Engel saga, the aim of the rebels who kidnapped his crew clearly became to demonize the Assad regime (an aim, it bears mentioning, whose realization hardly requires spreading falsehoods) with the goal of goading the West into military intervention against Assad.

This is exactly what other rebel commanders, once they became aware of the kidnapping, hoped to accomplish, according to the Times: “Several rebels and others with detailed knowledge of the episode said that the safe release of NBC’s team was staged after consultation with rebel leaders when it became clear that holding them might imperil the rebel efforts to court Western support.” (Engel, too, acknowledged this: “it is clear we were…released for propaganda purposes,” he wrote.)

Engel noted in his piece last night that the new account “underscore[s] the treacherous and violent nature of the conflict inside Syria.” It’s a shame that whichever NBC executives were aware of the (ultimately true) counter-narrative chose to do nothing to revise the original story quickly, instead opting to shield their viewers from this picture, even at a time when more robust military support for the so-called Free Syrian Army was being hotly debated in the United States.

NBC News’s failure to quickly correct the record made the network into a willing conduit for pro-war propaganda by a murky coalition of Syrian rebel groups. (And let me repeat that the executives who apparently failed to impose a course correction despite the information they had acquired, rather than the correspondent and team on the ground, deserve the blame.)

“An NBC News spokesman said the network would have no comment beyond the statement posted on its site,” reported the Times. That’s a shame, too, because there are still plenty of questions NBC News’s audience deserves answers to.

 

Read Next: Ali Gharib on Tom Cotton’s warmongering

Tom Cotton: The Iran War Will Be a Cakewalk

Senator Tom Cotton

Senator Tom Cotton (Reuters/Laura Downing)

Last we heard from Tom Cotton, he was marshaling most of his Republican Senate colleagues into a widely ridiculed letter to Iran, trying to rile up the Islamic Republic's hard-liners to oppose a nuclear deal with President Obama. Whereas other opponents of a deal couch their opposition in hopes for a unicorn "better deal," Cotton had been explicit about his aim of killing talks.

What's his alternative to negotiations? The freshman senator form Arkansas has been shy on this front: he's stopped short of directly calling for military strikes on the Islamic Republic. But in an appearance on a religious right radio show on Tuesday, Cotton suggested he doesn't think a new war would be such a big deal.

Here's BuzzFeed's transcript of the relevant bits of Cotton's remarks:

Even if military action were required—and we certainly should have kept the credible threat of military force on the table throughout which always improves diplomacy—the president is trying to make you think it would be 150,000 heavy mechanized troops on the ground in the Middle East again as we saw in Iraq and that’s simply not the case.

It would be something more along the lines of what President Clinton did in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox. Several days air and naval bombing against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction facilities for exactly the same kind of behavior. For interfering with weapons inspectors and for disobeying Security Council resolutions.

There's a lot wrong with this (more on which in a moment), but the first thing to note, as the analyst Matt Duss quickly did, is that Cotton's formulation—Attacking Iran? NBD!—smacks of the prediction neoconservative hawks made about the Iraq war: that it would be a "cakewalk." Astoundingly, given how that war played out, this isn't the first time neoconservative ideologues have dismissed the complexity, difficulty and potential consequences of a new war against Iran.

The first notable salvo downplaying a future war came from then-Senator Joseph Lieberman, who declared in 2010 that an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities wasn't a war at all, despite the clear implications of dropping bombs on a foreign country. "We're not talking about a war, because nobody is talking about invading Iran," Lieberman said.

Then during the 2012 campaign, as Obama pointed out the dangers of war with Iran, the neoconservative pundit and then-Mitt Romney adviser Dan Senor attacked the administration's public airing of potential consequences of a strike. Obama "talk(s) about how disastrous military action against Iran would be for the United States, for the global economy, for the region," Senor complained, as if Americans are not entitled to a public debate about what they're getting into.

These are but a few examples; other neoconservatives, too, have routinely downplayed the potential consequences of an attack—sometimes, as pundit Lee Smith has, denying the broad consensus of the American defense community and military brass that a strike would only delay Iran's nuclear program.

That Cotton—a protégé of Bill Kristol whose campaign enjoyed an almost $1 million ad buy thanks to Kristol's hardest-line letterhead group—would follow neoconservative suit on the ease of an Iran war shouldn't be surprising. Nor should it be that his case is based on head-spinning historical revisionism.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Let's plug a few of the holes in Tom Cotton's narrative of Operation Desert Fox. The attacks of the late 'nineties only came after Iraq violated the conditions imposed on it after defeat in 1991's Gulf War (a full-scale invasion). Then came Desert Fox—the relative ease of which was aided by the destruction of Iraq's military and years of no-fly zones. Then neoconservative ideologues argued that Clinton's brief war, just like Bush Sr.'s Gulf War, hadn't gone far enough in that it didn't force regime change. Clinton's weakness, one neocon bogusly argued (we now know), forced Saddam Hussein in to Osama Bin Laden's hands. Therefore, the second Iraq war—the costly, bloody quagmire that we were promised would be a "cakewalk"—became necessary. "There were no inspectors left to investigate" whether Clinton's strikes had really destroyed Hussein's WMD programs, argued Kristol and his comrade Bob Kagan in a 2004 Weekly Standard article patting themselves on the back for pushing the war.

Of course, Iran has stymied some inspections, but by-and-large international inspectors are today operating there and would, in the case of the deal Cotton and his hawkish allies oppose, be given a much broader mandate. (Decrying the framework for talks agreed to last week, Cotton, amid blowing a few more facts, complained that the deal will do nothing to staunch Iran's non-nuclear malfeasance in the region—something a few days of targeted strikes on Iran's nuclear sites are sure to exacerbate, not help, though Cotton on Tuesday made no mention of Iranian retaliation whatsoever.)

What's more, if the US or Israel were to attack Iranian nuke sites, that could very well spur Iran to do something, according to American and Israeli intelligence estimates, it hasn't yet: make the decision to build a bomb. But don't take my word for it: two former top security chiefs from Cotton's favorite country, Israel, have explicitly made this point.

That scenario presents a problem for hawks like Cotton, though he and many others scrupulously avoid making the stakes of what they're discussing clear. Only one neoconservative that I've seen was honest enough to explain. In the Washington Post last month, Joshua Muravchik wrote that the solution for dealing with Iran's reconstitution of its program after an attack was simple: just bomb again and again (nevermind that the task will be more complicated with the Iranian program driven underground). The Israelis call this "mowing the lawn," a euphemism for perpetual war. No wonder Cotton and his comrades don't bring it up very much; to do so would show their plan for attacking Iran would be anything but a cakewalk.

 

Read Next: Read Next: Ali Gharib on the historic Iran agreement

The Iran Agreement Is Historic. Will Congress Destroy It?

Javad Zarif

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a press conference in Lausanne, Switzerland on Thursday, April 2, 2015 (AP/Brendan Smialowski)

Just wait for the congressional freakout that comes if world powers and Iran sign a comprehensive nuclear accord this summer. Negotiations advanced on Thursday with a framework agreement between Iran and the P5+1—the United States, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany—that maps out the imposition of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. The sides will now begin to draft the final accord, due by the end of June. That leaves plenty of time for the most hawkish and recalcitrant members of Congress to try to scupper talks. And if the reaction to Thursday’s agreement is any indication, they most certainly will.

Take Mark Kirk, the Republican senator from Illinois and AIPAC stalwart. A leader in efforts to sanction the Iranians—even during the last year of talks, when it would spell the end of negotiations—led the way with the most outlandish statement. Building on his past theme comparing negotiations to the Munich Agreement that ceded the Sudetenland to Hitler, but didn’t satisfy the Nazi appetite for conquest, Kirk lashed out. “Neville Chamberlain got a lot of more out of Hitler than Wendy Sherman”—the State Department number three—“got out of Iran,” he said.

That talking point belies what proponents of an Iran nuke deal have been saying for years: that those opposing a compromise want war. The stale neoconservatism that dominates Kirk’s thinking—and fear-mongering—doesn’t dictate that Chamberlain should’ve gotten a better deal in Munich, but that Munich should never have happened and Europe should have gone to war against Hitler earlier.

Meanwhile, the Arkansas GOP freshman Senator Tom Cotton—who led a, shall we say, unorthodox effort last month to kill the talks by appealing directly to his hardline counterparts in Iran—came out with a point blank denial of reality: “There is no nuclear deal or framework with Iran,” he said in a statement. “Contrary to President Obama’s insistence, the former deputy director of the UN’s nuclear watchdog has said terms such as these will allow Iran to achieve nuclear breakout in just a few months, if not weeks.”

Except that Cotton got that wrong. The UN nuclear official he referred to is Olli Heinonen, now with Harvard. Heinonen affirmed in the Washington Post yesterday that the terms of the deal, leaving Iran with 5000 centrifuges, would yield a breakout time—the period needed for Iran to “dash” to enough fissile material for a bomb, if a deal collapsed—of a year, not months or weeks. And a year-long breakout time has long been the goal of talks, a key aim by which a variety of nuclear experts have said a deal should be measured. A well-established skeptic of the talks, Heinonen seemed “impressed” with the framework, according to The New York Times, whom he told the agreement “appears to be a fairly comprehensive deal with most important parameters.”

These congressional reactions are of course the most outlandish, but they don’t bode well for hawks’ effort to wrangle support for deal-killing measures. The hyperbolic rhetoric and sloppy statements will make it still more difficult for Democrats to sign on with them. If anything, Kirk’s ideological rants should shame those Democrats who already did work with him. Kirk and AIPAC’s most frequent Democratic collaborator, New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, took time away from pleading not guilty to federal corruption charges yesterday to release a brief, mild-mannered statement on the agreement that departed sharply from Kirk’s tone.

Other Democrats, while cautious, were more sanguine than Menendez has generally been on talks anyway; many expressed support for the framework. For the moment, the guarded support resulted in the latest Kirk Menendez sanctions push getting put on hold. That leaves the other congressional play: to win the right for approval of any final deal. With history as a guide, though, these efforts seem likely to soften in the face of Democratic support for diplomacy. Last year, as Eli Clifton and I wrote in the magazine, Kirk and Menendez’s last attempt at new sanctions—which were likely to kill talks—ended up falling flat when Democrats refused to buck the Obama administration and grassroots support for an interim deal. The Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s support for the framework will only strengthen that dynamic. (Prospective Republican presidential nominees are—surprise!—lining up against the framework agreement.)

Earlier this week, another nuclear expert skeptical of a deal, former administration non-proliferation czar Gary Samore, who works with a hawkish anti-Iran group, told a Columbia University audience that Congress was unlikely to reject any deal. (Samore, who has the ear of Congress, told the Times yesterday he found the new agreement’s key provisions to be “very satisfactory.”) But in downplaying likely congressional intransigence, Samore got the big issue wrong: he cited the difficulty for Congress of putting sanctions back in place if it rejects a deal.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

That’s not really what’s at stake here. Congress, especially Democrats, the reasonable ones at least (not those willing to work with Mark Kirk, for example), will be hesitant to kill a deal because the heightened prospect of another disastrous war of choice in the Middle East is too daunting. AIPAC, in its statement, rejected the notion “that the only alternatives to this framework are capitulation or military action,” but they’re wrong. Killing this deal—the result, so far, of more than two years of grueling diplomacy—would put the United States back on the path to confrontation with Iran. The progress made cannot simply be undone and remade; American credibility would be destroyed. John Bolton’s recent pro-war op-ed was right about this one thing: as Dana Milbank put it, “The alternative to a negotiated settlement is not stronger sanctions—it’s war.”

Congress’s demand for a vote on a final deal isn’t on its own unreasonable. But, when Congress is controlled by Republicans hellbent on quashing every item on Obama’s agenda, seeking to avoid their official input isn’t either. The fight over getting an up-or-down vote—a Republican led proposal garnering some Democratic support is deeply flawed, for instance, and a Democratic alternative is unlikely to win many Republican votes—will now become the central front of the congressional-executive war over Iran diplomacy.

Kirk, still pressing the stalled sanctions bill he introduced this winter with Bob Menendez, who never saw a hawkish GOP Iran bill he didn’t like, has proven himself a warmonger. Any Democrat or Republican who follows his lead will expose themselves, too—and should be held to account for it.

 

Read Next: Ali Gharib on bidding good riddance to Bob Menendez

Good Riddance to Bob Menendez?

Bob Menendez

Senator Robert Menendez testifies on Capitol Hill in 2013 (AP Photo/Molly Riley)

Yesterday, the Justice Department hit Democratic New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez with fourteen counts of corruption, including 8 bribery charges that alone could carry more than a century in prison. The indictment was based on Menendez’s relationship with Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist and major donor. In exchange for a litany of gifts, including Caribbean resort stays, campaign cash and flights, according to the indictment, Menendez used his influence to benefit Melgen’s interests, extending to his businesses and even helping to get visas for “several of Melgen’s girlfriends.”

Menendez held a defiant press conference on Wednesday evening (before officially pleading not guilty today), declaring his innocence and, as he did when news of the imminent charges broke last month, telling reporters, “I am not going anywhere.” That may be true, in terms of Menendez’s Senate seat, but the Democratic hawk already gave up his powerful post as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (a position he hopes to retake when cleared of the charges).

Some of the media coverage of the charges suggested that Menendez’s departure from his leadership position would harm Democrats—but that’s not quite as clear as it seems. Indeed, in lamenting the Democrats’ loss, National Journal noted Menendez was able “to work with Republicans and has earned their respect through his occasional battles with the White House over foreign policy.” That hardly sounds like a leader of the caucus, but rather like a senator who has worked hand in hand with the most obstructionist critics of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

The constant efforts, in cahoots with Republicans, to constrain the Obama administration’s diplomacy with Iran, for instance, have divided Democrats bitterly. In January of 2014, Menendez, along with rapacious anti-Iran Senator Mark Kirk (Ill.), introduced a new sanctions bill backed by the powerful anti-diplomacy American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Critics said the bill would kill the interim agreement struck by Iran and world powers—the framework that just today bore fruit as negotiations toward a comprehensive pact advanced—leading to widespread opposition among the Democratic Senate leadership. When liberal grassroots groups rallied enough Democrats to sustain a promised presidential veto, the bill failed to come to a vote.

This year, Menendez introduced another sanctions measure with Kirk, but it too has so far stalled without the necessary Democratic support. He also sponsored a bill with Republican Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker to empower Congress to vote on any deal with Iran—earning another veto threat from Obama. And working with Republicans came back to bite Menendez when Majority Leader Mitch McConnell couldn’t restrain his partisan impulses and sought to bring the bill to a quick vote; even Menendez himself had to object.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

These are just a few examples of Menendez siding with AIPAC and its Republican stalwarts over the White House and a majority of Senate Democrats. At times, Menendez’s rhetoric has been harsh. He reportedly clashed directly with Obama at a Democratic congressional luncheon in January. Later that month, he berated administration officials defending diplomacy: “The more I hear from the administration and its quotes, the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran,” he said. In a 2013 hearing, Menendez went after Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman over the administration’s policy on the exiled Iranian exile group the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a hawkish, cult-like outfit that pushes for regime change.

But Menendez’s strategy has paid off—literally. Menendez received more campaign contributions from the MEK and its allies than any other member of Congress, according to a study by Eli Clifton and me for our piece on their relationship in the Intercept. And during his 2012 re-election campaign, Menendez garnered more contributions from pro-Israel groups than any other senator, according to Open Secrets. This winter, the Israel lobby flagship gave Menendez a hero’s welcome. Today, AIPAC leaders and other pro-Israel donors are funding and bundling contributions for his legal defense.

So Menendez has a long record of taking money from donors and advocating the policies they support. No one—certainly not me—is suggesting that his work on behalf of groups like AIPAC and the MEK rises to the level of corruption. And, despite the neocon conspiracy theories, the charges aren’t retribution from Obama. But allegations that Menendez took money to do favors shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone. He is, after all, from New Jersey.

Read Next: Ali Gharib on the worst case for war with Iran you’ll read in a major newspaper

Republicans Loved Netanyahu’s Racist Election Tactics

John Boehner and Orrin Hatch applaud Benjamin Netanyahu as he speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on March 3, 2015 (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Almost 200 House Republicans are sending a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulating him on his victory in Israel’s snap election Tuesday. Netanyahu sailed to victory on the heels of two controversial late-campaign statements to rally his base: a warning, replete with George Wallace–esque shades of bigotry, that Palestinian citizens of Israel were “coming out in droves to the polls” and a vow that a Palestinian state would not be created on his watch.

In a spate of interviews with American news outlets, Netanyahu tried to walk back his remarks. Whatever one makes of his new Thursday position on a Palestinian state—a lot of people aren’t buying it—Netanyahu’s explanation of his bigoted warning about Arab voters left much to be desired: “I wasn’t trying to suppress a vote; I was trying to get out my vote,” he said.

Enter House Republicans. In the letter, which no Democrats have signed on to, Representative Ron DeSantis of Florida lauded Netanyahu’s victory and even his means of achieving it. “Your victory was no doubt hard-fought and well-earned,” the letter, first reported by the neoconservative news site Free Beacon, said. A hundred and ninety members of the House GOP signed on as of this morning.

The White House complained that the remark about Arab voters undermined the foundations of the US-Israel relationship. “These kinds of cynical, divisive election day tactics stand in direct conflict to… the values that are critical to the bond between our two countries,” said spokesperson Josh Earnest. Palestinian citizens of Israel make up roughly 20 percent of the Jewish state’s population.

DeSantis also complained in a separate statement released Wednesday alongside the letter that President Obama had not yet congratulated Netanyahu on his victory (though Netanyahu had himself taken two days to congratulate Obama on his 2012 re-election). On Thursday, Obama called Netanyahu to congratulate him, but added that the United States “will need to reassess our options following the prime minister’s new positions and comments regarding the two-state solution,” a White House official told Reuters—hinting at allowing possible action against Israel and toward a two-state solution in international fora, where the United States has heretofore exercised blanket opposition to measures targeting Israel.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

The DeSantis letter’s partisan nature underscores the closeness of Republicans and Netanyahu’s Likud party—a trend largely driven by the GOP and Likud themselves, as when Netanyahu effectively endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012. Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who engineered Netanyahu’s controversial Congress speech earlier this month with Netanyahu’s US ambassador (and former Republican operative) Ron Dermer, today announced plans to travel to Israel. The cozy relationship, it seems, extends to a fondness for racially charged electioneering tactics.

 

Read Next: Ali Gharib on what Netanyahu’s victory means for America

What Netanyahu’s Victory Means for America

Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters at party headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2015. (Reuters/Amir Cohen)

The American political class has spent decades convincing itself that the Israeli political class really does want a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The last six years have been the hardest—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed a tepid desire for peace, but consistently acted contrary it—and yet the image of an Israel that would strike the deal if only this or that condition was met by the Palestinians persisted. Perhaps the image even grew stronger: who can forget all the standing ovations Netanyahu received during his 2009 address to Congress and, despite all the controversy, again this winter?

The illusion, however, of an Israeli body politic, perhaps even an Israeli electorate, happy to make peace was shattered as Netanyahu sailed to another victory—especially in light of the way he did it. Netanyahu’s last minute bid to strengthen his hand came not from fear-mongering about Iran, as he’d done for years, but about the Palestinians. His fired salvos at both Palestinian citizens of Israel (some 20 percent of the population) and against those Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. In the former case, Netanyahu warned his base Arabs were “coming out in droves to the polls”; in the latter, he boldly declared that no Palestinian state would be birthed were he elected (something Netanyahu had been hinting at throughout the campaign).

The mantra of American Israel supporters, from grassroots lobby groups right up to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, has always been that the United States and Israel hold “shared values”—chief among them the countries’ common democratic characters. But Netanyahu’s campaign put the lie to the notion. “Remember that Netanyahu’s version of democracy includes as few Arab voices as possible, simply because they are not Jewish,”wrote +972 Magazine’s Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man. “Remember that the peace processes he has overseen for decades were not genuine, that he never had any intention of ushering in, let alone seeking, a two-state solution.”

The problem for American policy-makers, with the illusion of “shared values” shattered, is that they have spent decades enabling Israel’s pursuit of its worst instincts. The US subsidizes about a fifth of Israel’s defense budget—the largest American foreign aid package—to help the country defend itself as it pursues peace, not for it to hold the Occupied Territories in perpetuity and create, as many Israeli officials have put it, a de jure Apartheid state where half the people under its control get no vote. The United States gives Israel diplomatic cover in international fora to prevent the Jewish state from being unfairly targeted and maligned, not to avoid criticisms of a state deserving of censure. How can we keep graciously offering these benefits to Israel if it has so blatantly defied its own claims—and ours—of being a strong, if flawed, democracy?

The answer is twofold, though both aspects are connected: one is the inertial strength of the Israel lobby and the other is its favorite party, the Republicans. The lobby has faltered in recent years, losing out at key points in the Iran diplomacy fight, for instance, but lobby groups’ aggressive policing of politics and media will continue apace, and can still bite those who transgress it as well as lavish benefit on those who proclaim their fealty. The lobby’s biggest problem is that those quarters of American politics in lock step with its aims are increasingly falling squarely in the Republican camp. Think of the Jerusalem platform fight at the 2012 Democratic National Convention or, again, the Iran issue, particularly the continuing partisan efforts to kill nuclear talks and the GOP invitation to Netanyahu to address Congress on Iran.

Republicans, too, have professed a desire to see a two-state solution, but they were nonetheless quick to congratulate their political ally Netanyahu on his victory (GOP hypocrisy is nothing new). That leaves it to the Democrats and their leader for the next two years, President Barack Obama, to take a stand. The signs are heartening, even from Congress: 56 members boycotted Netanyahu’s address earlier this month, and so far a critical mass of Democrats haven’t signed onto measures designed to kill negotiations with Iran. The administration, meanwhile, expressed concern over Netanyahu’s election tactics and vowed to “evaluate [its] position going forward” on the peace process, such that it is.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

But the administration’s criticisms leave room for ambiguity: Will there be any more concrete consequences for Israel in light of its newly clarified intransigence on peace? It’s doubtful, but with the free hand of a second term president, Obama could let a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements pass instead of vetoing it or, better yet, give the Palestinian Authority support in its efforts to join international organizations (so far, the Obama administration has resisted both these moves). The shibboleth of the so-called special relationship between Israel and America—the generous military aid to a wealthy country—should be the first thing to go, but will probably be the last.

So not much is likely to happen. In a way, it makes perfect sense. Netanyahu’s remarks during the campaign didn’t totally re-order how any half-witted observer of Israeli politics views the Prime Minister. He’s been acting this way for years and has now, belatedly, added word to deed. If America wasn’t willing to face up to these realities before, why should it now? Israel’s ardent defenders will no doubt dismiss Netanyahu’s comments and call for keeping up the status quo. But at this moment another step has been taken for Americans coming to realize what the status quo is: a belligerent American client state willfully careening towards apartheid with our help, trying, along the way, to drag us into disastrous conflicts in the region. It’s a small step, but for the principled American liberals increasingly fed up with Israel, this march is slow and steady.

Read Next: Ali Gharib on the worst case for war with Iran you’ll read in a major newspaper

Syndicate content