Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.
Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.
In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
U.S. soldiers in Iraq in 2008, using their boots (Reuters )
A president is axiomatically having a bad week when his understanding of warfare is criticized, in public, by the most revered living Marine general. This is what happened yesterday when retired Gen. James Mattis, the legendary former chief of U.S. Central Command, told the House Intelligence Committee that, “You just don’t take anything off the table up front, which it appears the administration has tried to do.”
Mattis is referring to President Obama’s promise to avoid deploying ground troops, no matter what, in the fight against the Islamic State terror group. (There are, of course, already U.S. troops wearing boots that touch the ground in Iraq, but they are not meant to join the frontline fight against ISIS, though they could obviously get hurt anyway, this being Iraq.)
Mattis's argument is simple: Never tell your enemy what you’re not going to do. “If this threat to our nation is determined to be as significant as I believe it is, we may not wish to reassure our enemies in advance that they will not see American boots on the ground,” Mattis said. “If a brigade of our paratroopers or a battalion landing team of our Marines would strengthen our allies at a key juncture and create havoc/humiliation for our adversaries, then we should do what is necessary with our forces that exist for that very purpose.”
Even Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, who is not a lean-in sort of commander in the Mattis style, has acknowledged the possibility of an eventual need for ground troops.
President Obama’s caution in the matter of ISIS is not the disaster many people make it out to be—his sobriety and thoughtfulness may one day be remembered more fondly than they are understood now—for a couple of reasons: The first is that ISIS doesn’t pose an immediate threat to the United States, because, unlike al-Qaeda, it is mainly interested in building up its own state, not in attacking the far enemy. Unlike many of his fellow countrymen, Obama hasn’t let anger over the beheadings of two Americans blind him to the current nature of the threat. The second is that he has a proper appreciation for the limitations of American allies in the Middle East, and he knows that true victory against ISIS will only come when our allies are capable of taking the lead in this struggle. It doesn’t matter, in other words, if Obama puts 20,000 troops, or 200,000, into this fight. Without capable partners to secure the victory these troops would obtain, there’s no point in making such a commitment.
But: Obama has committed himself to the eventual destruction of ISIS, and so it is counterproductive strategically to signal to ISIS his plans and intentions.
There is a way for Obama to reframe the American role in the fight against ISIS, without committing to any specific course of action. I didn’t come up with this new rhetorical and policy path; Obama did, in interviews with me, and others, and in public statements over the past several years. The subject of these interviews and public statements was not the threat posed by Sunni radicalism, but the threat posed by the Shiite revolutionary state, Iran. When asked what he would do to stop Iran from gaining possession of a nuclear weapon, Obama always answered the same way: “All options are on the table.”
“All options on the table” has an ominous ring to it. It is concise, ambiguous, and threatening, and I believe that its regular public deployment was one factor that motivated Iran to negotiate the future of its nuclear program with the U.S., rather than continue its rush to the bomb.
Using this slogan—as opposed to “no boots on the ground”—in the case of ISIS would also have the advantage of being accurate, because of course there are situations in which President Obama may have to use ground troops in the struggle against ISIS, particularly if U.S. assets, or allies, are directly threatened. Does anyone really believe that if ISIS were to make a move on Baghdad, which is home to the largest U.S. embassy in the world, or on Jordan, that the president wouldn’t use whatever force necessary prevent a debacle?
A move from “no boots on the ground” to “all options on the table” would cause the Consistency Police (i.e. my profession) to go berserk, and would frighten the left, and also the non-interventionist right. But the decision to degrade and destroy ISIS has been made, so the most important goal has to be to frighten ISIS. I don’t want U.S. combat troops in the fight against ISIS—this is the responsibility of Arabs and Kurds. But I do want the leaders of ISIS to believe that Obama is capable of waging all-out war against them.
ISIS terrorists celebrate a victory over Assad forces near Raqaa, Syria. (Reuters )
My friend and colleague David Frum makes a compelling case against America’s ramped-up war on the terrorist group ISIS. The thrust of David’s argument is that the U.S. will be waging this war on behalf of the Iranian regime, which, of course, is our prime adversary in the Middle East, one that is more wily, more consequential, and (of course) much closer to crossing the nuclear threshold than ISIS is:
The trouble with the policy of aid-Iran-but-don’t-admit-it is that the United States receives nothing in return—and specifically, no abatement of the Iranian nuclear program. The Obama administration may hope that by acting as Iran’s air force today, the United States may somehow gain Iranian goodwill tomorrow. Instead, the bizarre real-world effect of the administration's deny-the-obvious messaging is to empower the Iranians to act as if they were doing the United States a favor by allowing the United States to whomp their enemies for them.
David ends his post (you should read the whole thing, as they say) by asking, “What is the benefit of this war to America and to Americans?”
Let me attempt an answer, even though I am myself ambivalent about this campaign, because I think the risk of escalation is great; because bombing Bashar al-Assad’s enemies is a morally unsatisfying thing to do (I’m going for understatement here); because the chance of meaningful (as opposed to stopgap) success is slight; and because I am tired of the U.S. waging war in the Middle East against terrible people on behalf of other terrible people. But here are a couple of arguments for why Obama is justified in intensifying his existing campaign against ISIS.
The first is that not all of ISIS’s enemies are terrible: The defense of the Kurds and of Jordan are causes worth pursuing. (Even the defense of Saudi Arabia is in American national security and economic interests.) An unimpeded ISIS threatens the Kurds, who are our allies and who have built for themselves something decent in their corner of Iraq, and it poses an existential threat to Jordan. If Jordan were to be overrun, this would spark both a humanitarian catastrophe of unimaginable proportions as well as a regional war between Israel (which would rush to Jordan’s defense) and the global jihadist movement, a war Iran would exploit to further its own anti-Israel and anti-Sunni objectives. ISIS infiltration of Saudi Arabia would be similarly disastrous. Even an ISIS move on Baghdad would be disastrous for the U.S.—imagine the mechanics of evacuating thousands of Americans from a city under ISIS siege. If you liked the fall of Saigon, you’ll love the pictures from besieged Baghdad.
It would, of course, be lovely if the non-Iran-sponsored ground forces arrayed against ISIS were formidable. (Obama, as I’ve noted, has spent three years disparaging the fighting skills of the secularish Free Syrian Army, which has now become a linchpin of the American-led effort against ISIS.) But they are not. The only possible way to slow ISIS’s progress, and to possibly reverse it in some more-than-negligible way, is to provide air cover and intelligence and logistics support to our hapless allies on the ground.
A second reason: President Obama was careful not to speak of an imminent or specific ISIS threat to Americans, because none currently exists. But it is not implausible to argue that a Qaeda-inspired group of limitless cruelty and formidable financial resources, one that has an omnibus loathing for “infidels,” and one that has thousands of members who hold passports from countries that participate in the U.S. visa-waiver program, poses a non-trivial threat to American civilians. Disrupting ISIS by attacking its leaders in their Syrian safe havens, rather than simply attacking their underlings inside Iraq, seems justifiable.
David is right to argue that the U.S. is functionally aligning itself with Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah, and this is a terrible thing. Other critics of the president’s plan are right to point out its flaws and limitations, and to ask whether our anger at the beheadings of two American journalists is blurring our vision. (It’s not the worst thing, at times like these, to have a president who leans in the direction of reluctance.) But the question for David is, what are the consequences for American national security of continued ISIS success?
President Obama—who will tell the country tonight that the U.S. is taking its air war against the psychotic, end-of-days Islamist terrorists of ISIS directly to their safe havens in Syria—has now comprehensively learned, six years into his presidency, that Michael Corleone’s fatalistic insight about the mafia also holds true for presidents in the Middle East: “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.” A president desperate to make at least a semi-graceful exit from a very large swamp has learned that there is no way out.
This will not be the Cairo speech of 2009, in which a buoyant, overly optimistic Obama forecast a future of productive and respectful (and, implicitly, low-maintenance) relations with the pre-Arab Spring, pre-Syria catastrophe, pre-ISIS Muslim world. Instead, this will be a particularly sober speech in which Obama outlines why his ramped-up campaign against ISIS is a national-security imperative for the U.S. The short-term, and even medium-term, goal of the Obama administration is not to reshape the Middle East; the goal is simply to avert further catastrophe, by degrading and ultimately destroying ISIS. (In the speech, Obama will cite his campaigns against Islamist terrorists in Yemen and Somalia as models for the anti-ISIS campaign—no state-building here, just killing terrorists.)
What sort of catastrophe is he trying to avert? An ISIS march on Baghdad is one fear; so too is an ISIS infiltration of Jordan and, over time, of Saudi Arabia as well. (There is palpable worry among Middle East experts in the administration that Jordan, a resolute ally of the United States and an island of stability in a mainly unhinged region, could become vulnerable to an ISIS juggernaut). Another goal is to deliver public defeat to a group that appears to many young, disaffected Muslim men to be the strongest horse (to borrow from Osama bin Laden) in the Middle East, and to disrupt the movement of young Muslim men from Europe (and elsewhere) who seek to affiliate with ISIS, and who could bring ISIS terror back to their own countries. (It is worth noting that many of these thousands of young men hold citizenship in countries that participate in the U.S. visa-waiver program.)
The president has promised the eventual neutralization of ISIS, but this task will be exceedingly hard, and he obviously knows that this is the case. He does have a couple of things working in his favor. The first is that the American public is with him. The videotaped beheadings of two American journalists have galvanized allegedly war-weary Americans for a fight in a way that we haven’t seen in years. The second is that leaders of moderate Sunni states are so frightened by ISIS that they seem ready to join the coalition Obama is building to fight the group.
But there are a daunting number of impediments to success. The first is that American public opinion is fickle. American pilots will be flying risky missions, and there are already American boots on the ground—special-forces boots, intelligence boots, trainer boots. American opinion could change if soldiers start getting hurt or killed, especially months from now, when the horrific images of those beheadings fade from memory. In any case, Americans are notably uninterested in sustaining long campaigns against even atrocious enemies.
The second obstacle is that the U.S. has no effective allies on the ground. An air campaign can achieve a great deal, but the campaign Obama is envisioning—slow and steady, rather than shock and awe—has the disadvantage of giving ISIS time to dig in. The U.S. will be counting on a dysfunctional Iraqi army; intermittently effective Kurdish guerrillas; Sunni tribes of dubious loyalty; and, of course, the Free Syrian Army—the force that Obama has spent three years disparaging as a collection of farmers and carpenters and engineers—to do the hard work of rooting ISIS out of presumably fortified towns and cities. Much of what Obama is promising in this ramped-up campaign is help for these outfits, but the U.S. has spent a dozen years training the Iraqi army, with negligible results.
Obama faces many other difficulties in this campaign. One of them is the quality of (so-called) U.S. allies such as Qatar, which plays every side of this conflict; and Turkey, which won’t even seal the border crossings across which would-be European jihadists travel on their way to ISIS recruitment stations. (This is not even to mention some of America’s European allies, who have provided millions of dollars in ransom to the ISIS treasury in exchange for their kidnapped citizens.) Another problem: End games are nearly impossible to envision at the moment, either in politically combustible Iraq, or in a collapsed Syria. Put another way, it is easier see the slippery slope than the exit door. Then there is a problem that recurs time and again in the Middle East: Will U.S. escalation against ISIS serve as a recruiting tool for the group? What will the U.S. do if ISIS terrorists launch successful attacks against American targets, either in the Middle East, Europe, or even at home? Further escalation will surely follow, but to what end? Without effective allies on the ground, fighting this fight on behalf of the U.S. and the civilized world, wouldn’t the U.S. have to eventually insert its own troops?
These questions are not meant to suggest that the underlying moral and national security case for an anti-ISIS campaign is unsound. It would not be tenable for the U.S. and its allies to allow a group rejected by al-Qaeda as too extreme to control large swaths of territory in the heart of the Middle East. Our reluctant (or clear-eyed—take your pick) president understands this. What Americans will see on Wednesday night is a president who has convinced himself that this is a fight worth waging, despite his bone-deep desire to escape the morass of the Middle East.
The president is a superior terrorist hunter. He has also neutralized a profound existential threat to U.S. allies in the Middle East, and denied ISIS access to vast storehouses of deadly chemical weapons. So why does he get no credit?
The last time the President gave a major speech on Syria, one year ago (Reuters )
Here are five observations about President Obama’s frustrating and largely hapless encounter with the Middle East:
1) Inaction has its consequences, just as action has its consequences;
2) Just because you’re not interested in the Middle East doesn’t mean the Middle East isn’t interested in you;
3) Chaos and collapse in the Middle East cannot be solely, or even (perhaps) mainly, attributed to the mistaken or ill-conceived ideas, goals, speeches, and strategies of American presidents;
4) Obama, more than other presidents, gets no credit for his concrete accomplishments in the Middle East;
5) Obama’s presidency will be judged a failure in the realm of national security if al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadist groups are still able to maintain significant safe havens across the greater Middle East when he leaves the White House in January of 2017, and if Iran remains on a path to the nuclear threshold.
I’m sure you’re fascinated by Observation Number Five in particular, but I also know that you are asking yourselves, “Just what are the concrete accomplishments of which you speak?” Washington has reached a consensus view that Obama has been hesitant, contradictory, and flinching on a range of issues related to the Middle East. It is true that his rhetoric has not often matched his strategy (see Peter Baker’s story on the disconnect between some of Obama's reassuring statements on the Middle East and the dispiriting reality of the place, and Richard Haass’s comments on Administration promises); it is true that early reports suggest that the strategy he is unveiling to counter ISIS seems limited and evolutionary; and it also true, as Ron Fournier, and others, note, that Obama has a tendency to tell America’s enemies what he won’t do to them, rather than what he will do.
Here are two things that are also true: Obama has become the greatest terrorist hunter in the history of the presidency; and his successful push to disarm the Assad regime of the bulk of its chemical-weapons stockpiles has removed from the Middle East, and beyond, the possibility of an unparalleled cataclysm.
Why does he get no credit for these achievements? He gets no acclaim as a terrorist hunter for two reasons. First, Republicans will not credit him with any achievements in this endeavor because they won’t credit him with any achievement ever, for anything. He could concoct a cure for Ebola in Sam Kass’s kitchen and conservatives would criticize him for wasting time on a disease that doesn’t affect Americans. Second, the left-leaning Democratic Party base is hesitant to tout his record in the terrorist-killing department because it is uncomfortable with the idea of their president as a drone-deploying killer. No love from the right or left means that attacks such as the one that eliminated the head of Somalia’s terrifying al-Shabab militant group received relatively little notice. But I think the record will show that Obama has focused U.S. efforts on combating al-Qaeda and al Qaeda-like groups in at least half a dozen countries in a way that his predecessor did not. (And as for his predecessor’s predecessor, well, he did virtually nothing to stop al-Qaeda from metastasizing into what it became by September 11, 2001.)
On the second issue—the safe removal, and subsequent destruction aboard a U.S. Navy ship, of 1,300 tons of chemical agents from the most dangerous country in the most dangerous region in the world—Obama gets no credit in part because of the awkward and stutter-step manner in which the removal was originally negotiated, and also because it is not in the nature of humans to credit a leader for averting a theoretical catastrophe.
But the catastrophe averted here was plausible, even predictable. Just answer the following question: As the U.S. moves closer to open confrontation with ISIS inside Syria, is it a good thing that ISIS, and like-minded groups, and the regime itself, have no access to vast storehouses of chemical agents?
I did not think it was possible to remove the bulk of Bashar al-Assad’s stockpile in conditions of war, and I did not think Assad would agree to part with any significant portion of his stockpile, which, of course, represented his ultimate regime-preservation weapon.
On the one hand, it would have been emotionally satisfying—ephemerally, at least—to see Obama enforce his self-drawn red line by bombing Assad’s palace. But bombing Assad’s palace, or other regime facilities, would not have led to the removal of his stockpile. There are consequences to Obama’s last-minute about-face on the subject of airstrikes, though I find implausible the idea that Vladimir Putin would not be doing what he is doing if Obama had appeared tougher on Syria.
The truth is that Assad gave up his chemical weapons in good measure because he saw Obama’s threat of airstrikes as credible. The U.S. still has the ability to deter.
And what does the world get out of the removal of these chemical agents? Here is Laura Holgate, the senior director for nonproliferation at the National Security Council: “By having these 1,300 tons out of there, we’ve massively simplified the remaining challenges of the ongoing conflict. We’ve just removed an ‘x’ factor.”
The regime continues to use chlorine gas intermittently against civilians, and it is widely believed to have held back at least a small portion of its stockpile of other agents and precursors. But the bulk of the stockpile is gone, and with it, the threat it posed to such neighbors as Israel and Jordan, and the fear that sophisticated jihadist groups could lay their hands on these chemicals.
Holgate told me that “the existential threat these Syrian chemical weapons posed to Israel is gone. Period. It’s out of the country.” She went on to say, “That doesn’t mean that there are not discrepancies that remain, and we’re in constant conversation with Israel about that. We both believe that there are things that are undeclared, but nothing to the point of being an existential threat. Israel has stopped distributing gas masks to the population. What does it mean not to distribute gas masks? That’s a signal to the population.”
Graham Allison, the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School, called the dismantling of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles a “big deal,” and then went on to say that it is “even bigger if you consider the most probable counter-factual: Had we bombed a limited number of sites, as planned and advocated for by all the ‘authorities,’ what are the odds that additional chemical-weapons attacks would have happened? Ninety-nine-plus percent.”
He went on to make the sobering point that “an international order that excludes killing with chemical weapons is not nirvana, but it is a much better world than one in which Assad and the folks fighting him are also using chemical weapons.”
I’ve been critical of Obama’s hesitation to take a more active role in shaping the Syrian opposition (in the debate between Hillary Clinton and the president on this subject—some of which appeared in this space a month ago—I lean toward Hillary’s view that the U.S. could have done more to help Syrian rebels early on, before the revolution was hijacked by jihadists), but it only seems fair to acknowledge that Obama achieved something important and tangible in his effort to rid Syria of chemical weapons.
As I mentioned above, Obama will ultimately be judged on whether he combats jihadism successfully (without, it should be said, forming an alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran, or even the Assad regime itself, in the process). He was first voted into power in part by promising to refocus America’s attention on Sunni jihadism. But by removing a deadly ‘x’ factor from the equation, he has done the world a service that ought to be acknowledged.
Hillary Clinton and friends, digging a hole (Reuters )
Shortly after I posted my interview with Hillary Clinton last month, I began hearing from liberal Democrats who were worried that her hawkish comments—on Syria, but especially on the Gaza war—would somehow provoke a primary challenge from her left (these conversations proceeded from the assumption that Clinton is running for president, which is a reasonable assumption). The Democratic Party base, the theory went, would be so offended by Clinton’s vociferous pro-Netanyahu positioning that it would agitate on behalf of a primary challenge. Elizabeth Warren, the populist Massachusetts senator, was the most likely candidate for the role.
As a reminder, here is some of what Clinton said about Israel and Gaza:
Israel was attacked by rockets from Gaza. Israel has a right to defend itself. The steps Hamas has taken to embed rockets and command-and-control facilities and tunnel entrances in civilian areas, this makes a response by Israel difficult. Of course Israel, just like the United States, or any other democratic country, should do everything they can possibly do to limit civilian casualties.
If I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security [on the West Bank], because even if I’m dealing with Abbas, who is 79 years old, and other members of Fatah, who are enjoying a better lifestyle and making money on all kinds of things, that does not protect Israel from the influx of Hamas or cross-border attacks from anywhere else. With Syria and Iraq, it is all one big threat. So Netanyahu could not do this in good conscience.
Tough stuff, and not the sort of thing you would have heard from her publicly when she was yelling at Benjamin Netanyahu on behalf of President Obama for the past several years. After the interview, I came to a few conclusions about these statements:
They were made on purpose, as was every statement she made in the interview, including the line that got the most attention: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
They were made with the knowledge that she faces no serious foreign policy-focused challenge from her left. She does face a more serious and sustained critique from the left on domestic issues, but she felt that going hawkish on foreign policy would be low-risk.
They were made with knowledge that there are segments of the pro-Israel community that still mistrust her for kissing Mrs. Arafat a million years ago.
She believes what she said. She is just naturally more hawkish than the president she served as secretary of state.
I’m now glad to report—only because I’d rather be right than wrong, all things being equal—that Elizabeth Warren has confirmed for us that, on questions related to Israel, Clinton has nothing to fear from her, at least.
At a town-hall meeting on Cape Cod last month, Warren answered critics of her vote in favor of a Senate measure to send an additional $225 million in military funding to Israel during the war. Here is a report on the town-hall meeting from the Cape Cod Times:
“I think the vote was right, and I'll tell you why I think the vote was right," [Warren] said. "America has a very special relationship with Israel. Israel lives in a very dangerous part of the world, and a part of the world where there aren't many liberal democracies and democracies that are controlled by the rule of law. And we very much need an ally in that part of the world.”
Warren said Hamas has attacked Israel ‘indiscriminately,’ but with the Iron Dome defense system, the missiles have "not had the terrorist effect Hamas hoped for." When pressed by another member of the crowd about civilian casualties from Israel's attacks, Warren said she believes those casualties are the "last thing Israel wants.”
“But when Hamas puts its rocket launchers next to hospitals, next to schools, they're using their civilian population to protect their military assets. And I believe Israel has a right, at that point, to defend itself," Warren said, drawing applause.
Even if Elizabeth Warren chooses to run (unlikely), she won’t run as a tough-on-Israel liberal. There's just no percentage in it. Hillary knew what she was doing.
Free Syrian Army fighters in Damascus (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)
Michael Totten remembers Steven Sotloff, who was part of a roving band of very brave reporters covering hard wars in a new and terrible age. After the very brave and very smart (and very risk-aware) Danny Pearl was beheaded, I used to argue to colleagues that his death was the exception that proved the rule: Most terrorist groups still wanted reporters to carry their message to the world, or so we told ourselves in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. No more: The exception is no longer exceptional. The murder is the message.
Totten, a very brave reporter himself, just posted a remembrance of Steven Sotloff. Here is part of it:
When he lived in Benghazi and everyone was heading for the exits, he told me—and I believed him—that Benghazi was the same old Benghazi, by which he meant mostly fine aside from some unfortunate incidents. Dangerous places are often, though not always, less dangerous than they appear in the media. At least they appear that way.
Maybe that's just a trick of the mind. Those of us who insert ourselves into war zones figure out ways to cope with anxiety and get it to drop nearly to zero. The human mind is extremely adaptable, and it’s easier to neutralize fear when it’s faced voluntarily. That’s why I felt calm in Baghdad most of the time. It’s also why exposure therapy works.
Steven was brave and unlucky, but he was not stupid. He knew how risky going to Syria was and, according to Ben Taub, he planned to take a hiatus from this nasty business after one final trip and possibly apply to graduate school in Florida.
The Islamic State took that from him, and they took him from us.
(Updated below, with odd statement from prosecutor)
From the Dept. of Insane and Dangerous Overreactions to Fictional Threats:
A 23-year-old teacher at a Cambridge, Maryland, middle school has been placed on leave and—in the words of a local news report—"taken in for an emergency medical evaluation" for publishing, under a pseudonym, a novel about a school shooting. The novelist, Patrick McLaw, an eighth-grade language-arts teacher at the Mace's Lane Middle School, was placed on leave by the Dorchester County Board of Education, and is being investigated by the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office, according to news reports from Maryland's Eastern Shore. The novel, by the way, is set 900 years in the future.
Here is part of a breathless, law enforcement-friendly report from WBOC, which describes itself as "Delmarva's News Leader":
He's a man with many names, and the books he has written have raised the concerns of the Dorchester County Board of Education and the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office.
Early last week the school board was alerted that one of its eighth grade language arts teachers at Mace's Lane Middle School had several aliases. Police said that under those names, he wrote two fictional books about the largest school shooting in the country's history set in the future. Now, Patrick McLaw is placed on leave.
Dr. K.S. Voltaer is better known by some in Dorchester County as Patrick McLaw, or even Patrick Beale. Not only was he a teacher at Mace's Lane Middle School in Cambridge, but according to Dorchester Sheriff James Phillips, McLaw is also the author of two books: "The Insurrectionist" and its sequel, "Lillith's Heir."
Those books are what caught the attention of police and school board officials in Dorchester County. "The Insurrectionist" is about two school shootings set in the future, the largest in the country's history.
Phillips said McLaw was taken in for an emergency medical evaluation. The sheriff would not disclose where McLaw is now, but he did say that he is not on the Eastern Shore. The same day that McLaw was taken in for an evaluation, police swept Mace's Lane Middle School for bombs and guns, coming up empty.
Imagine that—a novelist who didn't store bombs and guns at the school at which he taught. How improbable! Especially considering that he uses an "alias," which is apparently the law-enforcement term for "nom de plume." (Here is the Amazon page for The Insurrectionist, by the way. Please note that the book was published in 2011, before McLaw was hired.)
According to an equally credulous and breathless report in the Star-Democrat, which is published in Easton, Maryland, the combined efforts of multiple law-enforcement agencies have made area children safe from fiction. Sheriff Phillips told the newspaper that, in addition to a K-9 sweep of the school (!), investigators also raided McLaw's home. "The residence of the teacher in Wicomico County was searched by personnel,” Phillips said, with no weapons found. “A further check of Maryland State Police databases also proved to be negative as to any weapons registered to him. McLaw was suspended by the Dorchester County Board of Education pending an investigation and is no longer in the area. He is currently at a location known to law enforcement and does not currently have the ability to travel anywhere.”
I've tried to reach the sheriff, so far unsuccessfully, to learn whether McLaw's "inability to travel anywhere" means that he is under arrest. It is somewhat amazing that local news reports on this case don't make clear whether McLaw is under arrest, and if so, on what charge. It is equally astonishing that the reporters on this story don't seem to have used the words "First Amendment" in their questioning of law-enforcement officials, and also astonishing they don't question the Soviet-sounding practice of ordering an apparently sane person who has been deemed unacceptable by state authorities to undergo a psychological evaluation.
It would be useful to know if McLaw is under investigation for behavior other than writing two novels—and perhaps he will be shown to be a miscreant of some sort—but so far, there is no indication that he is guilty of anything other than having an imagination, although on Maryland's Eastern Shore, as news reports make clear, his imagination is considered an active threat.
Dorchester County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Henry Wagner told WBO that police will be present at the middle school "for as long as we deem it necessary," and the sheriff said that law-enforcement officials across the Delmarva peninsula have been given McLaw's photo in case he shows up in their jurisdictions—though again, it is not clear if he is, in fact, in police custody at the moment.
If law-enforcement authorities in Dorchester County have additional information that implicates McLaw in a crime, or in the planning of a crime, it is imperative that they release it immediately. As it stands now, they appear to be violating the constitutional rights of a citizen, and also, by the way, teaching the children of their county something awful about the power of fear over reason.
UPDATE (September 2, 2:51 p.m.): According to The Los Angeles Times, a law enforcement official is saying that McLaw drew the attention of authorities not because of his books, but because of a "a four-page letter to officials in Dorchester County." The report goes on to say, "Those concerns brought together authorities from multiple jurisdictions, including health authorities."
The story goes on to state, "McLaw's letter was of primary concern to healthcare officials, Maciarello says. It, combined with complaints of alleged harassment and an alleged possible crime from various jurisdictions led to his suspension. Maciarello cautions that these allegations are still being investigated; authorities, he says, "proceeded with great restraint."
I'm glad local authorities are releasing more information about McLaw, but these are the same authorities who last week told the press that McLaw was removed from his job because he wrote novels about a school shooting under a pseudonym (see, for instance, this CBS story: "Police: Md. Teacher Placed on Leave for Authoring Fictional Book of the ‘Largest School Massacre"). I've been trying to get the sheriff of Dorchester County on the phone, to no avail. It would be useful at this point for the authorities to get their story straight.
UPDATE II (September 2, 5:37 p.m.)
I just got off the phone with Matthew A. Maciarello, the state's attorney for Wicomico County, Md., where McLaw lives -- he taught in Dorchester County, which responded to his various troubles by sending K-9 units through the schools in search of bombs and guns. Maciarello told me that the issues here have less to do with McLaw's books and the overall state of his mental health. When I asked him if Dorchester authorities led the press -- and public -- to believe that McLaw was being removed from his job because of the books he had written, Maciarello said, "We have a different way in Wicomico County. I can't speak for Dorchester." (The Dorchester sheriff has not returned my phone calls seeking comment.)
"From our perspective, this was more about a health concern about Mr. McLaw than about a security issue," Maciarello said. Authorities grew concerned about McLaw after he sent a "four-page letter" to a school administrator over the summer. According to Maciarello, the letter contained no threats against schools or school personnel, but that it indicated that McLaw was not mentally sound. "Health care professionals were concerned, he was in a relationship that had just come to an end, he was talking about his mother as being overbearing, there was some thought that he could be a threat to himself." Based on the "totality of the circumstances," Maciarello said, McLaw was involuntarily committed for evaluation. Among those circumstances: Authorities said that McLaw had built a model of a school building in his home, and had asked an administrator to move classrooms, to one near the "point of ingress and egress" of the school.
Yes, I too was underwhelmed by that response. I asked Maciarello if the novels McLaw had self-published had been a factor in county decision-making: "The books are a factor," he said. "You cannot consider the total picture without knowing that he had this book, this other writing. This was very concerning to the administrators. It's 2014 -- you can't have a person who has mental issues, someone who's complaining about his mother, complaining about teachers -- it's all taken into totality. It was a very restrained response, actually. We didn't freak-out because of the books. The main impetus was the four-page letter. It was just out there, you know, it wasn't something you give to your employer. To quote our health officer, it was a cry for help." One other thing: "He had some Columbine material at his house."
I asked for specifics. He said the "Columbine material" consisted of a report on the infamous Colorado school shooting. It could have been meant for research for his novels, I suggested.
"Absolutely, that could be true. We played all the angles on that. You can't just dismiss every little thing in a situation like this, in 2014." He went on to say, "If someone wrote a novel about school shootings it wouldn't concern me. I person is allowed to follow their pursuits. I love fiction. I love expression. But some citizens did react to this, there were citizen complaints based on the book, but this wasn't an overreaction. If you add this to the model of a school that he was building -- is this a tortured artist, or is this someone obsessed about schools? But I don't know how this story got out there that he was placed on leave because of these books. The main concern here is therapeutic, that he gets the help he needs."
Going inside the Thrihnukagigur volcano via a window cleaner's basket (Wikimedia)
So I told Mrs. Goldblog last week that I had a revelation.
“Did you find Jesus?” she asked.
No, not quite that big, I said.
My revelation concerned German automobiles, I said. Specifically, it has been revealed to me that it is now theoretically possible for us, as a Jewish family, to buy a BMW. The chains of belief and sentiment and psychic unease that have kept me from making such a purchase have been sundered.
Mrs. Goldblog immediately registered her dissent, though she understood the source of my volte-face: It was the result of a visit we had just made to a dormant Icelandic volcano.
I will explain the Iceland link in a moment (and as a bonus, I will also include a gratuitous Leibovichian “This Town” moment) but first, some background on my longstanding boycott of German cars. Like many Jews, I have found the idea of associating myself in an ostentatious, or at least highly visible, way with German automobiles somewhat ethnically discrediting, and vaguely nausea-inducing. German industry was deeply complicit in the work of the Nazis, and I felt that putting some distance between my family and the Mercedes/BMW/Volkswagen combine (especially Volkswagen) was a way of honoring the memory of the Jews murdered by the Germans. My boycott doesn’t extend to German coffeemakers, or to Lufthansa (though its seats are very uncomfortable), or to visiting Germany itself. Why, some of my best friends are German! (Actually that’s not true, but not for any political reason. I just don’t know a lot of Germans.)
My boycott has targeted cars only. Many Jews, of course, don’t participate in this unofficial boycott (proof that it is only partially honored can be found in my synagogue’s parking lot on Rosh Hashanah) and I have recognized for a long while that this boycott is not rational, or rooted in smart policy thinking.
The first time I visited Israel, I was surprised to see a large number of German cars on its roads. Most taxis are German, and many trucks as well. This is the vestigial byproduct of the reparations paid to Israel, and to Shoah survivors living in Israel, by Germany. I’m guessing that many American Jews who see these vehicles in Israel are at first shocked, and then discomfited, and then find themselves accepting this strange post-World War II reality. I know a couple of people who bought German cars only after visiting Israel. (By the way, for an interesting discussion of German reparations, please see Ta-Nehisi Coates on the subject, toward the end of his important article on the issue of reparations for African-Americans.)
There’s an even deeper and highly symbolic connection between German industry and Israel—one of potentially world-historical importance—that has helped move my thinking on this subject, and that is the make-up of Israel’s submarine fleet. At this moment, nuclear-armed Israeli submarines are patrolling the Persian Gulf, off the coast of Iran, making sure that the regime in Tehran understands the second-strike consequences of threatening Israel’s existence. The first two Dolphin-class diesel submarines in Israel’s fleet were gifts from Germany, made in the days following the first Gulf War. (German companies had been identified as having sold chemical-weapons precursors to Saddam Hussein’s regime—a very embarrassing development.) Two more were subsequently purchased, and a fifth is on its way.
The point is, if German submarines are good enough for the Israeli Navy, they should be good enough for a Shoah-haunted American Jew.
Still, I was ambivalent on the subject, until last week.
My family and I were in Iceland on vacation (very beautiful, very expensive, very wet) and we decided to visit a dormant volcano called Thrihnukagigur (no, I can’t say it, or anything else in Icelandic). This is the only volcano in the world, we were told by Iceland government propagandists, that can actually be explored from the inside. (For whatever reason, when Thrihnukagigur stopped erupting roughly 4,500 years ago, its magma chamber didn’t collapse on itself, perhaps in anticipation of future tourism revenue.)
There is talk about blowing a hole in the side of the volcano, which would allow easy access to the cathedral-like chamber. A rude, bad idea that I hope does not come to pass. For now, the only way inside is to be lowered down the throat of the volcano through a narrow vent at its peak. A few years ago, a group of clever people decided that a window-cleaner’s basket, connected to a pulley system rigged to a prone crane stretched across the volcano’s mouth, would represent an efficient way to deliver visitors to the floor of the empty magma chamber.
I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the concept. In particular, I wasn’t thrilled by the idea of sending my children into a dormant (not, it should be noted, extinct, but merely dormant) volcano in a window-washer’s basket. Thrihnukagigur is not Bardarbunga, the volcano that is currently rumbling under Iceland's largest ice cap, but it ain't beanbag either.
On the three-mile walk to the volcano—through a desolate and lovely lava field—I asked a guide to explain the volcano elevator in detail. She said the process is simple: We strap you into a harness, and then you walk across a plank over the mouth of the volcano to the window-washer’s basket. You climb down into the basket (it holds six people) and then the basket motorman lowers you 400 feet to the floor of the volcano.
Does it ever break? I asked.
No, she said. “It’s a German engine. Very reliable.”
A German engine! They weren’t screwing around at this volcano! I was about to entrust the lives of my children to a window-washer’s basket dangling over the mouth of a volcano, and I was beyond pleased to learn that this machine was German. To my surprise, "German engine" brought to mind at that moment happy images of fastidious Bavarians in white coveralls, instead of the usual, which is to say, Himmler.
This is the moment I told myself that my boycott might have reached its natural conclusion. I was ready for a push anyway, but now, since the words “German engine” were filling me with hope and relief, then perhaps the car I use to transport my children should be powered by one.
The engine worked as promised, the basket was lowered successfully into the cold, empty chamber—which is beautiful and awe-inspiring and freezing—and more important, the basket brought us up 45 minutes later. It was actually quite thrilling, but there was no one to talk to about it on the long, lonely walk back through the lava field (I’m one of those people who overshares putatively interesting travel experiences with strangers—good luck sitting next to me on a long flight). Luckily, midway through the walk, a small group of tourists appeared in the distance—the next wave of volcano virgins. We were on a narrow path, and as the line of tourists passed us, I scanned their faces, looking for someone who might want to hear my excitement. Luckily, I found one.
“Mike Froman?” I said. One of the tourists was United States Trade Representative Mike Froman. That’s what I said to my kids—“Kids, it’s United States Trade Representative Mike Froman.” Mike was surprised to see me as well, because we were in a lava field in Iceland. No place is safe from the press.
When we got back to Reykjavik, I said to my wife, “Mike Froman, huh?" And then I said, "I was very glad it was a German engine. Weren’t you?”
“It’s funny. I was so happy that our Jewish children were going to be protected by a German engine. How’s that for irony?”
“Ironic,” she said, not ceding an inch.
I have two missions before me: Convince her that the boycott is over, and then find a way to actually pay for a BMW.
I’m hoping that United States Trade Representative Mike Froman might be able to help me find a deal.
Anti-Israel demonstrators atop a Trafalgar lion (Luke MacGregor/Reuters )
On the one hand, it is completely unsurprising that Europe has become a swamp of anti-Jewish hostility. It is, after all, Europe. Anti-Jewish hostility has been its metier for centuries. (Yes, the locus of much anti-Jewish activity today is within Europe’s large Muslim-immigrant population; but the young men who threaten their Jewish neighbors draw on the language and traditions of European anti-Semitism as much as they do on Muslim modes of anti-Semitic thought.)
On the other hand, the intensity, and velocity, of anti-Jewish invective—and actual anti-Jewish thuggery—has surprised even Eurocynics such as myself. “Jews to the gas,” a chant heard at rallies in Germany, still has the capacity to shock. So do images of besieged synagogues and looted stores. And testimony from harassed rabbis and frightened Jewish children.
But I find myself most bothered by what seems to have been, on the surface, a relatively minor incident. The episode took place last weekend at a Sainsbury’s supermarket in central London. Protesters assembled outside the store to call for a boycott of Israeli-made goods. Quickly, the manager ordered employees to empty the kosher food section. One account suggests that a staff member, when asked about the empty shelves, said “We support Free Gaza.” Other reports suggest that the manager believed that demonstrators might invade the store and trash it. (There is precedent to justify his worry.)
After a good deal of publicity following the incident, Sainsbury’s apologized to its Jewish customers. “This will not happen again,” its corporate-affairs director, Trevor Datsun, said, according to The Jewish Chronicle. “Managers will be told not to move kosher food because of some perceived threat.”
To the extent that it suggests that Israel and Judaism have been thoroughly conflated in the minds of many Europeans, the Sainsbury's kosher controversy is similar to other recent incidents. Kosher products—in the case of the Sainsbury’s branch in question, some apparently from the U.K. and Poland—were intuitively understood to be stand-ins for Israel itself, just as French Jewish males wearing kippot were understood by their attackers to be stand-ins for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
We have learned a number of unfortunate truths about the nature of the global anti-Israel movement this summer. One is that the war in Gaza is understood by many to be a continuation of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, and not of the 1967 Six Day War. Which is to say, many protesters are challenging Israel’s very right to exist, not its policies in the territories it came to occupy in 1967 (or in Gaza’s case, territory it occupied in 1967 and then turned over to Palestinians in 2005). A second is that the line separating anti-Zionism—the belief that Jews have no right to an independent state in at least part of their ancestral homeland—and anti-Judaism, already reed-thin, has pretty much vanished.
And yet, the Sainsbury’s incident is disturbing not so much for what it says about the nature of European anti-Israelism, but for what it says about the broader response within Europe to forces of intolerance and hatred. Employees of the Sainsbury’s branch in central London seemed to have understood, based on an accurate reading of recent events, that anti-Israel activists posed a threat to their store, and perhaps to their own physical well-being. And so the manager made a decision to surrender to the mob and engage in what could only be called an act of self-preservational, but objectively anti-Semitic, preemption.
Cowering of this sort is a sign that a country is losing the ability to stand for the values it professes to maintain. In the U.K., it is also a sign that a society hasn’t fully grappled with the radical intolerance exhibited by some of its citizens.
The Sainsbury's incident happened in the same city in which recruiters for Islamic State, the too-radical-for-al-Qaeda group that executed American photojournalist James Foley, have been seen openly passing out propaganda. It happened in the same place where what appeared to be a jihadist flag flew outside a housing estate. As many as 1,500 Britons are apparently fighting for Islamic State's cause. There are said to be more British Muslims fighting on behalf of Islamic State than for the U.K.'s military. Foley’s executioner, currently the world’s most infamous terrorist, is widely believed to be a British subject.
Let me be clear—I am not equating street thugs who attempt to physically intimidate supermarkets into boycotting Israeli goods with the terrorists of Islamic State. I am not even equating the Muslim men who scream “Jews to the gas” with the terrorists of Islamic State. But I am arguing that there exists in Europe a continuum of prejudice, and that, on occasion, the U.K., like so many other European nations, has forgotten how important it is to be intolerant of intolerance.
The former secretary of state, and probable candidate for president, outlines her foreign-policy doctrine. She says this about President Obama's: "Great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle."
President Obama has long ridiculed the idea that the U.S., early in the Syrian civil war, could have shaped the forces fighting the Assad regime, thereby stopping al Qaeda-inspired groups—like the one rampaging across Syria and Iraq today—from seizing control of the rebellion. In an interview in February, the president told me that “when you have a professional army ... fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict—the notion that we could have, in a clean way that didn’t commit U.S. military forces, changed the equation on the ground there was never true.”
Well, his former secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, isn’t buying it. In an interview with me earlier this week, she used her sharpest language yet to describe the "failure" that resulted from the decision to keep the U.S. on the sidelines during the first phase of the Syrian uprising.
“The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Clinton said.
As she writes in her memoir of her State Department years, Hard Choices, she was an inside-the-administration advocate of doing more to help the Syrian rebellion. Now, her supporters argue, her position has been vindicated by recent events.
Professional Clinton-watchers (and there are battalions of them) have told me that it is only a matter of time before she makes a more forceful attempt to highlight her differences with the (unpopular) president she ran against, and then went on to serve. On a number of occasions during my interview with her, I got the sense that this effort is already underway. (And for what it's worth, I also think she may have told me that she’s running for president—see below for her not-entirely-ambiguous nod in that direction.)
Of course, Clinton had many kind words for the “incredibly intelligent” and “thoughtful” Obama, and she expressed sympathy and understanding for the devilishly complicated challenges he faces. But she also suggested that she finds his approach to foreign policy overly cautious, and she made the case that America needs a leader who believes that the country, despite its various missteps, is an indispensable force for good. At one point, I mentioned the slogan President Obama recently coined to describe his foreign-policy doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit” (an expression often rendered as “Don’t do stupid stuff” in less-than-private encounters).
This is what Clinton said about Obama’s slogan: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
She softened the blow by noting that Obama was “trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy,” but she repeatedly suggested that the U.S. sometimes appears to be withdrawing from the world stage.
During a discussion about the dangers of jihadism (a topic that has her “hepped-up," she told me moments after she greeted me at her office in New York) and of the sort of resurgent nationalism seen in Russia today, I noted that Americans are quite wary right now of international commitment-making. She responded by arguing that there is a happy medium between bellicose posturing (of the sort she associated with the George W. Bush administration) and its opposite, a focus on withdrawal.
“You know, when you’re down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back, you’re not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward,” she said. “One issue is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days.”
I responded by saying that I thought that “defeating fascism and communism is a pretty big deal.” In other words, that the U.S., on balance, has done a good job of advancing the cause of freedom.
Clinton responded to this idea with great enthusiasm: “That’s how I feel! Maybe this is old-fashioned.” And then she seemed to signal that, yes, indeed, she’s planning to run for president. “Okay, I feel that this might be an old-fashioned idea, but I’m about to find out, in more ways than one.”
She said that the resilience, and expansion, of Islamist terrorism means that the U.S. must develop an “overarching” strategy to confront it, and she equated this struggle to the one the U.S. waged against Soviet-led communism.
“One of the reasons why I worry about what’s happening in the Middle East right now is because of the breakout capacity of jihadist groups that can affect Europe, can affect the United States,” she said. “Jihadist groups are governing territory. They will never stay there, though. They are driven to expand. Their raison d’etre is to be against the West, against the Crusaders, against the fill-in-the-blank—and we all fit into one of these categories. How do we try to contain that? I’m thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat.”
She went on, “You know, we did a good job in containing the Soviet Union but we made a lot of mistakes, we supported really nasty guys, we did some things that we are not particularly proud of, from Latin America to Southeast Asia, but we did have a kind of overarching framework about what we were trying to do that did lead to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism. That was our objective. We achieved it.” (This was one of those moments, by the way, when I was absolutely sure I wasn’t listening to President Obama, who is loath to discuss the threat of Islamist terrorism in such a sweeping manner.)
Much of my conversation with Clinton focused on the Gaza war. She offered a vociferous defense of Israel, and of its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as well. This is noteworthy because, as secretary of state, she spent a lot of time yelling at Netanyahu on the administration's behalf over Israel’s West Bank settlement policy. Now, she is leaving no daylight at all between the Israelis and herself.
“I think Israel did what it had to do to respond to the rockets,” she told me. “Israel has a right to defend itself. The steps Hamas has taken to embed rockets and command-and-control facilities and tunnel entrances in civilian areas, this makes a response by Israel difficult.”
I asked her if she believed that Israel had done enough to prevent the deaths of children and other innocent people.
“[J]ust as we try to do in the United States and be as careful as possible in going after targets to avoid civilians,” mistakes are made, she said. “We’ve made them. I don’t know a nation, no matter what its values are—and I think that democratic nations have demonstrably better values in a conflict position—that hasn’t made errors, but ultimately the responsibility rests with Hamas.”
She went on to say that “it’s impossible to know what happens in the fog of war. Some reports say, maybe it wasn’t the exact UN school that was bombed, but it was the annex to the school next door where they were firing the rockets. And I do think oftentimes that the anguish you are privy to because of the coverage, and the women and the children and all the rest of that, makes it very difficult to sort through to get to the truth.”
She continued, “There’s no doubt in my mind that Hamas initiated this conflict. … So the ultimate responsibility has to rest on Hamas and the decisions it made.”
When I asked her about the intense international focus on Gaza, she was quick to identify anti-Semitism as an important motivating factor in criticism of Israel. “It is striking … that you have more than 170,000 people dead in Syria. … You have Russia massing battalions—Russia, that actually annexed and is occupying part of a UN member-state—and I fear that it will do even more to prevent the incremental success of the Ukrainian government to take back its own territory, other than Crimea. More than 1,000 people have been killed in Ukraine on both sides, not counting the [Malaysia Airlines] plane, and yet we do see this enormous international reaction against Israel, and Israel’s right to defend itself, and the way Israel has to defend itself. This reaction is uncalled for and unfair.”
She went on, “You can’t ever discount anti-Semitism, especially with what’s going on in Europe today. There are more demonstrations against Israel by an exponential amount than there are against Russia seizing part of Ukraine and shooting down a civilian airliner. So there’s something else at work here than what you see on TV.” Clinton also blamed Hamas for “stage-managing” the conflict. “What you see is largely what Hamas invites and permits Western journalists to report on from Gaza. It’s the old PR problem that Israel has. Yes, there are substantive, deep levels of antagonism or anti-Semitism towards Israel, because it’s a powerful state, a really effective military. And Hamas paints itself as the defender of the rights of the Palestinians to have their own state. So the PR battle is one that is historically tilted against Israel.”
Clinton also seemed to take an indirect shot at administration critics of Netanyahu, who has argued that the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in the Middle East means that Israel cannot, in the foreseeable future, withdraw its forces from much of the West Bank. “If I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security, because even if I’m dealing with [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas, who is 79 years old, and other members of Fatah, who are enjoying a better lifestyle and making money on all kinds of things, that does not protect Israel from the influx of Hamas or cross-border attacks from anywhere else. With Syria and Iraq, it is all one big threat. So Netanyahu could not do this in good conscience.”
She also struck a notably hard line on Iran’s nuclear demands. “I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment,” Clinton said. “Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran. The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out.” When I asked her if the demands of Israel, and of America’s Arab allies, that Iran not be allowed any uranium-enrichment capability whatsoever were militant or unrealistic, she said, “I think it’s important that they stake out that position.”
What follows is a transcript of our conversation. It has been edited for clarity but not for length, as you will see. Two other things to look for: First, the masterful way in which Clinton says she has drawn no conclusions about events in Syria and elsewhere, and then draws rigorously reasoned conclusions. Second, her fascinating and complicated analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood's ill-fated dalliance with democracy.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: It seems that you’ve shifted your position on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. By [chief U.S. negotiator]Wendy Sherman’s definition of maximalism, you’ve taken a fairly maximalist position—little or no enrichment for Iran. Are you taking a harder line than your former colleagues in the Obama administration are taking on this matter?
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: It’s a consistent line. I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment. Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran. The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out. So, little or no enrichment has always been my position.
JG: Am I wrong in saying that the Obama administration’s negotiators have a more flexible understanding of this issue at the moment?
HRC: I don’t want to speak for them, but I would argue that Iran, through the voice of the supreme leader, has taken a very maximalist position—he wants 190,000centrifuges and the right to enrich. And some in our Congress, and some of our best friends, have taken the opposite position—absolutely no enrichment. I think in a negotiation you need to be very clear about what it is going to take to move the other side. I think at the moment there is a big debate going on in Tehran about what they can or should do in order to get relief from the sanctions. It’s my understanding that we still have a united P5+1 position, which is intensive inspections, very clear limits on what they can do in their facilities that they would permitted to operate, and then how they handle this question of enrichment, whether it’s done from the outside, or whether it can truly be constrained to meet what I think our standard should be of little-to-no enrichment. That’s what this negotiation is about.
JG: But there is no sign that the Iranians are willing to pull back—freezing in place is the farthest they seem to be willing to go. Am I wrong?
HRC: We don’t know. I think there’s a political debate. I think you had the position staked out by the supreme leader that they’re going to get to do what they want to do, and that they don’t have any intention of having a nuclear weapon but they nevertheless want 190,000 centrifuges (laughs). I think the political, non-clerical side of the equation is basically saying, “Look, you know, getting relief from these sanctions is economically and politically important to us. We have our hands full in Syria and Iraq, just to name two places, maybe increasingly in Lebanon, and who knows what’s going to happen with us and Hamas. So what harm does it do to have a very strict regime that we can live under until we determine that maybe we won’t have to any longer?” That, I think, is the other side of the argument.
JG: Would you be content with an Iran that is perpetually a year away from being able to reach nuclear-breakout capability?
HRC: I would like it to be more than a year. I think it should be more than a year. No enrichment at all would make everyone breathe easier. If, however, they want a little bit for the Tehran research reactor, or a little bit for this scientific researcher, but they’ll never go above 5 percent enrichment—
JG: So, a few thousand centrifuges?
HRC: We know what “no” means. If we’re talking a little, we’re talking about a discrete, constantly inspected number of centrifuges. “No” is my preference.
JG: Would you define what “a little” means?
JG: So what the Gulf states want, and what the Israelis want, which is to say no enrichment at all, is not a militant, unrealistic position?
HRC: It’s not an unrealistic position. I think it’s important that they stake out that position.
JG: So, Gaza. As you write in your book, you negotiated the last long-termceasefire in 2012. Are you surprised at all that it didn’t hold?
HRC: I’m surprised that it held as long as it did. But given the changes in the region, the fall of [former Egyptian President Mohamed] Morsi, his replacement by [Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi, the corner that Hamas felt itself in, I’m not surprised that Hamas provoked another attack.
JG: The Israeli response, was it disproportionate?
HRC: Israel was attacked by rockets from Gaza. Israel has a right to defend itself. The steps Hamas has taken to embed rockets and command-and-control facilities and tunnel entrances in civilian areas, this makes a response by Israel difficult. Of course Israel, just like the United States, or any other democratic country, should do everything they can possibly do to limit civilian casualties.
JG: Do you think Israel did enough to limit civilian casualties?
HRC: It’s unclear. I think Israel did what it had to do to respond to the rockets. And there is the surprising number and complexity of the tunnels, and Hamas has consistently, not just in this conflict, but in the past, been less than protective of their civilians.
JG: Before we continue talking endlessly about Gaza, can I ask you if you think we spend too much time on Gaza and on Israel-Palestine generally? I ask because over the past year or so your successor spent a tremendous amount of time on the Israel-Palestinian file and in the same period of time an al Qaeda-inspired organization took over half of Syria and Iraq.
HRC: Right, right.
JG: I understand that secretaries of state can do more than one thing at a time. But what is the cause of this preoccupation?
HRC: I’ve thought a lot about this, because you do have a number of conflicts going on right now. As the U.S., as a U.S. official, you have to pay attention to anything that threatens Israel directly, or anything in the larger Middle East that arises out of the Palestinian-Israeli situation. That’s just a given.
It is striking, however, that you have more than 170,000 people dead in Syria. You have the vacuum that has been created by the relentless assault by Assad on his own population, an assault that has bred these extremist groups, the most well-known of which, ISIS—or ISIL—is now literally expanding its territory inside Syria and inside Iraq. You have Russia massing battalions—Russia, that actually annexed and is occupying part of a UN member state—and I fear that it will do even more to prevent the incremental success of the Ukrainian government to take back its own territory, other than Crimea. More than 1,000 people have been killed in Ukraine on both sides, not counting the [Malaysia Airlines] plane, and yet we do see this enormous international reaction against Israel, and Israel’s right to defend itself, and the way Israel has to defend itself. This reaction is uncalled for and unfair.
JG: What do you think causes this reaction?
HRC: There are a number of factors going into it. You can’t ever discount anti-Semitism, especially with what’s going on in Europe today. There are more demonstrations against Israel by an exponential amount than there are against Russia seizing part of Ukraine and shooting down a civilian airliner. So there’s something else at work here than what you see on TV.
And what you see on TV is so effectively stage-managed by Hamas, and always has been. What you see is largely what Hamas invites and permits Western journalists to report on from Gaza. It’s the old PR problem that Israel has. Yes, there are substantive, deep levels of antagonism or anti-Semitism towards Israel, because it’s a powerful state, a really effective military. And Hamas paints itself as the defender of the rights of the Palestinians to have their own state. So the PR battle is one that is historically tilted against Israel.
JG: Nevertheless there are hundreds of children—
HRC: Absolutely, and it’s dreadful.
JG: Who do you hold responsible for those deaths? How do you parcel out blame?
HRC: I’m not sure it’s possible to parcel out blame because it’s impossible to know what happens in the fog of war. Some reports say, maybe it wasn’t the exact UN school that was bombed, but it was the annex to the school next door where they were firing the rockets. And I do think oftentimes that the anguish you are privy to because of the coverage, and the women and the children and all the rest of that, makes it very difficult to sort through to get to the truth.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Hamas initiated this conflict and wanted to do so in order to leverage its position, having been shut out by the Egyptians post-Morsi, having been shunned by the Gulf, having been pulled into a technocratic government with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority that might have caused better governance and a greater willingness on the part of the people of Gaza to move away from tolerating Hamas in their midst. So the ultimate responsibility has to rest on Hamas and the decisions it made.
That doesn’t mean that, just as we try to do in the United States and be as careful as possible in going after targets to avoid civilians, that there aren’t mistakes that are made. We’ve made them. I don’t know a nation, no matter what its values are—and I think that democratic nations have demonstrably better values in a conflict position—that hasn’t made errors, but ultimately the responsibility rests with Hamas.
JG: Several years ago, when you were in the Senate, we had a conversation about what would move Israeli leaders to make compromises for peace. You’ve had a lot of arguments with Netanyahu. What is your thinking on Netanyahu now?
HRC: Let’s step back. First of all, [former Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin was prepared to do so much and he was murdered for that belief. And then [former Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Barak offered everything you could imagine being given under any realistic scenario to the Palestinians for their state, and [former Palestinian leader Yasir] Arafat walked away. I don’t care about the revisionist history. I know that Arafat walked away, okay? Everybody says, “American needs to say something.” Well, we said it, it was the Clinton parameters, we put it out there, and Bill Clinton is adored in Israel, as you know. He got Netanyahu to give up territory, which Netanyahu believes lost him the prime ministership [in his first term], but he moved in that direction, as hard as it was.
Bush pretty much ignored what was going on and they made a terrible error in the Palestinian elections [in which Hamas came to power in Gaza], but he did come with the Roadmap [to Peace] and the Roadmap was credible and it talked about what needed to be done, and this is one area where I give the Palestinians credit. Under [former Palestinian Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad, they made a lot of progress.
I had the last face-to-face negotiations between Abbas and Netanyahu. [Secretary of State John] Kerry never got there. I had them in the room three times with [former Middle East negotiator] George Mitchell and me, and that was it. And I saw Netanyahu move from being against the two-state solution to announcing his support for it, to considering all kinds of Barak-like options, way far from what he is, and what he is comfortable with.
Now I put Jerusalem in a different category. That is the hardest issue, Again, based on my experience—and you know, I got Netanyahu to agree to the unprecedented settlement freeze, it did not cover East Jerusalem, but it did cover the West Bank and it was actually legitimate and it did stop new housing starts for 10 months. It took me nine months to get Abbas into the negotiations even after we delivered on the settlement freeze, he had a million reasons, some of them legitimate, some of them the same old, same old.
So what I tell people is, yeah, if I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security [on the West Bank], because even if I’m dealing with Abbas, who is 79 years old, and other members of Fatah, who are enjoying a better lifestyle and making money on all kinds of things, that does not protect Israel from the influx of Hamas or cross-border attacks from anywhere else. With Syria and Iraq, it is all one big threat. So Netanyahu could not do this in good conscience. If this were Rabin or Barak in his place—and I’ve talked to Ehud about this—they would have to demand a level of security that would be provided by the [Israel Defense Forces] for a period of time. And in my meetings with them I got Abbas to about six, seven, eight years on continued IDF presence. Now he’s fallen back to three, but he was with me at six, seven, eight. I got Netanyahu to go from forever to 2025. That’s a negotiation, okay? So I know. Dealing with Bibi is not easy, so people get frustrated and they lose sight of what we’re trying to achieve here.
JG: You go out of your way in Hard Choices to praise Robert Ford, who recently quit as U.S. ambassador to Syria, as an excellent diplomat. Ford quit in protest and has recently written strongly about what he sees as the inadequacies of Obama administration policy. Do you agree with Ford that we are at fault for not doing enough to build up a credible Syrian opposition when we could have?
HRC: I have the highest regard for Robert. I’m the one who convinced the administration to send an ambassador to Syria. You know, this is why I called the chapter on Syria “A Wicked Problem.” I can’t sit here today and say that if we had done what I recommended, and what Robert Ford recommended, that we’d be in a demonstrably different place.
JG: That’s the president’s argument, that we wouldn’t be in a different place.
HRC: Well, I did believe, which is why I advocated this, that if we were to carefully vet, train, and equip early on a core group of the developing Free Syrian Army, we would, number one, have some better insight into what was going on on the ground. Two, we would have been helped in standing up a credible political opposition, which would prove to be very difficult, because there was this constant struggle between what was largely an exile group outside of Syria trying to claim to be the political opposition, and the people on the ground, primarily those doing the fighting and dying, who rejected that, and we were never able to bridge that, despite a lot of efforts that Robert and others made.
So I did think that eventually, and I said this at the time, in a conflict like this, the hard men with the guns are going to be the more likely actors in any political transition than those on the outside just talking. And therefore we needed to figure out how we could support them on the ground, better equip them, and we didn’t have to go all the way, and I totally understand the cautions that we had to contend with, but we’ll never know. And I don’t think we can claim to know.
JG: You do have a suspicion, though.
HRC: Obviously. I advocated for a position.
JG: Do you think we’d be where we are with ISIS right now if the U.S. had done more three years ago to build up a moderate Syrian opposition?
HRC: Well, I don’t know the answer to that. I know that the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.
They were often armed in an indiscriminate way by other forces and we had no skin in the game that really enabled us to prevent this indiscriminate arming.
JG: Is there a chance that President Obama overlearned the lessons of the previous administration? In other words, if the story of the Bush administration is one of overreach, is the story of the Obama administration one of underreach?
HRC: You know, I don’t think you can draw that conclusion. It’s a very key question. How do you calibrate, that’s the key issue. I think we have learned a lot during this period, but then how to apply it going forward will still take a lot of calibration and balancing. But you know, we helped overthrow [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi.
JG: But we didn’t stick around for the aftermath.
HRC: Well, we did stick around. We stuck around with offers of money and technical assistance, on everything from getting rid of some of the nasty stuff he left behind, to border security, to training. It wasn’t just us, it was the Europeans as well. Some of the Gulf countries had their particular favorites. They certainly stuck around and backed their favorite militias. It is not yet clear how the Libyans themselves will overcome the lack of security, which they inherited from Qaddafi. Remember, they’ve had two good elections. They’ve elected moderates and secularists and a limited number of Islamists, so you talk about democracy in action—the Libyans have done it twice—but they can’t control the ground. But how can you help when you have so many different players who looted the stuffed warehouses of every kind of weapon from the Qaddafi regime, some of which they’re using in Libya, some of which they’re passing out around the region?
So you can go back and argue either, we should we have helped the people of Libya try to overthrow a dictator who, remember, killed Americans and did a lot of other bad stuff, or we should have been on the sidelines. In this case we helped, but that didn’t make the road any easier in Syria, where we said, “It’s messy, it’s complicated, we’re not sure what the outcome will be.” So what I’m hoping for is that we sort out what we have learned, because we’ve tried a bunch of different approaches. Egypt is a perfect example. The revolution in Tahrir Square was not a Muslim Brotherhood revolution. It was not led by Islamists. They came very late to the party. Mubarak falls and I’m in Cairo a short time after, meeting the leaders of this movement, and I’m saying, “Okay, who’s going to run for office? Who’s going to form a political party?” and they’re saying, “We don’t do that, that’s not who we are.”
And I said that there are only two organized groups in this country, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, and what we have here is an old lesson that you can’t beat somebody with nobody. There was a real opportunity here to, if a group had arisen out of the revolution, to create a democratic Egyptian alternative. Didn’t happen. What do we have to think about? In order to do that better, I see a lot of questions that we have to be answering. I don’t think we can draw judgments yet. I think we can draw a judgment about the Bush administration in terms of overreach, but I don’t know that we can reach a conclusion about underreach.
JG: There is this moment in your book, in which Morsi tells you not to worry about jihadists in the Sinai—he says in essence that now that a Muslim Brotherhood government is in charge, jihadists won’t feel the need to continue their campaign. You write that this was either shockingly sinister or shockingly naïve. Which one do you think it was?
HRC: I think Morsi was naïve. I’m just talking about Morsi, not necessarily anyone else in the Muslim Brotherhood. I think he genuinely believed that with the legitimacy of an elected Islamist government, that the jihadists would see that there was a different route to power and influence and would be part of the political process. He had every hope, in fact, that the credible election of a Muslim Brotherhood government would mean the end of jihadist activities within Egypt, and also exemplify that there’s a different way to power.
The debate is between the bin Ladens of the world and the Muslim Brotherhood. The bin Ladens believe you can’t overthrow the infidels or the impure through politics. It has to be through violent resistance. So when I made the case to Morsi that we were picking up a lot of intelligence about jihadist groups creating safe havens inside Sinai, and that this would be a threat not only to Israel but to Egypt, he just dismissed this out of hand, and then shortly thereafter a large group of Egyptian soldiers were murdered.
JG: In an interview in 2011, I asked you if we should fear the Muslim Brotherhood—this is well before they came into power—and you said, ‘The jury is out.” Is the jury still out for you today?
HRC: I think the jury would come back with a lesser included offense, and that is a failure to govern in a democratic, inclusive manner while holding power in Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood had the most extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate the potential for an Islamist movement to take responsibility for governance, and they were ill-prepared and unable to make the transition from movement to responsibility. We will see how they respond to the crackdown they’re under in Egypt, but the Muslim Brotherhood itself, although it had close ties with Hamas, for example, had not evidenced, because they were kept under tight control by Mubarak, the willingness to engage in violent conflict to achieve their goals. So the jury is in on their failure to govern in a way that would win the confidence of the entire Egyptian electorate. The jury is out as to whether they morph into a violent jihadist resistance group.
JG: There’s a critique you hear of the Obama administration in the Gulf, in Jordan, in Israel, that it is a sign of naiveté to believe that there are Islamists you can work with, and that Hamas might even be a group that you could work with. Is there a role for political Islam in these countries? Can we ever find a way to work with them?
HRC: I think it’s too soon to tell. I would not put Hamas in the category of people we could work with. I don’t think that is realistic because its whole reason for being is resistance against Israel, destruction of Israel, and it is married to very nasty tactics and ideologies, including virulent anti-Semitism. I do not think they should be in any way treated as a legitimate interlocutor, especially because if you do that, it redounds to the disadvantage of the Palestinian Authority, which has a lot of problems, but historically has changed its charter, moved away from the kind of guerrilla resistance movement of previous decades.
I think you have to ask yourself, could different leaders have made a difference in the Muslim Brotherhood’s governance of Egypt? We won’t know and we can’t know the answer to that question. We know that Morsi was ill-equipped to be president of Egypt. He had no political experience. He was an engineer, he was wedded to the ideology of top-down control.
JG: But you’re open to the idea that there are sophisticated Islamists out there?
HRC: I think you’ve seen a level of sophistication in Tunisia. It’s a very different environment than Egypt, much smaller, but you’ve seen the Ennahda Party evolve from being quite demanding that their position be accepted as the national position but then being willing to step back in the face of very strong political opposition from secularists, from moderate Muslims, etc. So Tunisia might not be the tail that wags the dog, but it’s an interesting tail. If you look at Morocco, where the king had a major role in organizing the electoral change, you have a head of state who is a monarch who is descended from Muhammad, you have a government that is largely but not completely representative of the Muslim party of Morocco. So I think that there are not a lot of analogies, but when you look around the world, there’s a Hindu nationalist party now, back in power in India. The big question for Prime Minister Modi is how inclusive he will be as leader because of questions raised concerning his governance of Gujurat [the state he governed, which was the scene of anti-Muslim riots in 2002]. There were certainly Christian parties in Europe, pre- and post-World War II. They had very strong values that they wanted to see their society follow, but they were steeped in democracy, so they were good political actors.
JG: So, it’s not an impossibility.
HRC: It’s not an impossibility. So far, it doesn’t seem likely. We have to say that. Because for whatever reason, whatever combination of reasons, there hasn’t been the soil necessary to nurture the political side of the experience, for people whose primary self-definition is as Islamists.
JG: Are we so egocentric, so Washington-centric, that we think that our decisions are dispositive? As secretary, did you learn more about the possibilities of American power or the limitations of American power?
HRC: Both, but it’s not just about American power. It’s American values that also happen to be universal values. If you have no political—small “p”—experience, it is really hard to go from a dictatorship to anything resembling what you and I would call democracy. That’s the lesson of Egypt. We didn’t invade Egypt. They did it themselves, and once they did it they looked around and didn’t know what they were supposed to do next.
I think we’ve learned about the limits of our power to spread freedom and democracy. That’s one of the big lessons out of Iraq. But we’ve also learned about the importance of our power, our influence, and our values appropriately deployed and explained. If you’re looking at what we could have done that would have been more effective, would have been more accepted by the Egyptians on the political front, what could we have done that would have been more effective in Libya, where they did their elections really well under incredibly difficult circumstances but they looked around and they had no levers to pull because they had these militias out there. My passion is, let’s do some after-action reviews, let’s learn these lessons, let’s figure out how we’re going to have different and better responses going forward.
JG: Is the lesson for you, like it is for President Obama, “Don’t do stupid shit”?
HRC: That’s a good lesson but it’s more complicated than that. Because your stupid may not be mine, and vice versa. I don’t think it was stupid for the United States to do everything we could to remove Qaddafi because that came from the bottom up. That was people asking us to help. It was stupid to do what we did in Iraq and to have no plan about what to do after we did it. That was really stupid. I don’t think you can quickly jump to conclusions about what falls into the stupid and non-stupid categories. That’s what I’m arguing.
JG: Do you think the next administration, whoever it is, can find some harmony between muscular intervention—“We must do something”—vs. let’s just not do something stupid, let’s stay away from problems like Syria because it’s a wicked problem and not something we want to tackle?
HRC: I think part of the challenge is that our government too often has a tendency to swing between these extremes. The pendulum swings back and then the pendulum swings the other way. What I’m arguing for is to take a hard look at what tools we have. Are they sufficient for the complex situations we’re going to face, or not? And what can we do to have better tools? I do think that is an important debate.
One of the reasons why I worry about what’s happening in the Middle East right now is because of the breakout capacity of jihadist groups that can affect Europe, can affect the United States. Jihadist groups are governing territory. They will never stay there, though. They are driven to expand. Their raison d'être is to be against the West, against the Crusaders, against the fill-in-the-blank—and we all fit into one of these categories. How do we try to contain that? I’m thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat. You know, we did a good job in containing the Soviet Union, but we made a lot of mistakes, we supported really nasty guys, we did some things that we are not particularly proud of, from Latin America to Southeast Asia, but we did have a kind of overarching framework about what we were trying to do that did lead to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism. That was our objective. We achieved it.
Now the big mistake was thinking that, okay, the end of history has come upon us, after the fall of the Soviet Union. That was never true, history never stops and nationalisms were going to assert themselves, and then other variations on ideologies were going to claim their space. Obviously, jihadi Islam is the prime example, but not the only example—the effort by Putin to restore his vision of Russian greatness is another. In the world in which we are living right now, vacuums get filled by some pretty unsavory players.
JG: There doesn’t seem to be a domestic constituency for the type of engagement you might symbolize.
HRC: Well, that’s because most Americans think of engagement and go immediately to military engagement. That’s why I use the phrase “smart power.” I did it deliberately because I thought we had to have another way of talking about American engagement, other than unilateralism and the so-called boots on the ground.
You know, when you’re down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back, you’re not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward. One issue is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days.
JG: I think that defeating fascism and communism is a pretty big deal.
HRC: That’s how I feel! Maybe this is old-fashioned. Okay, I feel that this might be an old-fashioned idea—but I’m about to find out, in more ways than one.
Great nations need organizing principles, and “Don’t do stupid stuff” is not an organizing principle. It may be a necessary brake on the actions you might take in order to promote a vision.
JG: So why do you think the president went out of his way to suggest recently that that this is his foreign policy in a nutshell?
HRC: I think he was trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy. I’ve sat in too many rooms with the president. He’s thoughtful, he’s incredibly smart, and able to analyze a lot of different factors that are all moving at the same time. I think he is cautious because he knows what he inherited, both the two wars and the economic front, and he has expended a lot of capital and energy trying to pull us out of the hole we’re in.
So I think that that’s a political message. It’s not his worldview, if that makes sense to you.
JG: There is an idea in some quarters that the administration shows signs of believing that we, the U.S., aren’t so great, so we shouldn’t be telling people what to do.
HRC: I know that that is an opinion held by a certain group of Americans, I get all that. It’s not where I’m at.
JG: What is your organizing principle, then?
HRC: Peace, progress, and prosperity. This worked for a very long time. Take prosperity. That’s a huge domestic challenge for us. If we don’t restore the American dream for Americans, then you can forget about any kind of continuing leadership in the world. Americans deserve to feel secure in their own lives, in their own middle-class aspirations, before you go to them and say, “We’re going to have to enforce navigable sea lanes in the South China Sea.” You’ve got to take care of your home first. That’s another part of the political messaging that you have to engage in right now. People are not only turned off about being engaged in the world, they’re pretty discouraged about what’s happening here at home.
I think people want—and this is a generalization I will go ahead and make—people want to make sure our economic situation improves and that our political decision-making improves. Whether they articulate it this way or not, I think people feel like we’re facing really important challenges here at home: The economy is not growing, the middle class is not feeling like they are secure, and we are living in a time of gridlock and dysfunction that is just frustrating and outraging.
People assume that we’re going to have to do what we do so long as it’s not stupid, but what people want us to focus on are problems here at home. If you were to scratch below the surface on that—and I haven’t looked at the research or the polling—but I think people would say, first things first. Let’s make sure we are taking care of our people and we’re doing it in a way that will bring rewards to those of us who work hard, play by the rules, and yeah, we don’t want to see the world go to hell in a handbasket, and they don’t want to see a resurgence of aggression by anybody.
JG: Do you think they understand your idea about expansionist jihadism following us home?
HRC: I don’t know that people are thinking about it. People are thinking about what is wrong with people in Washington that they can’t make decisions, and they want the economy to grow again. People are feeling a little bit that there’s a little bit happening that is making them feel better about the economy, but it’s not nearly enough where it should be.
JG: Have you been able to embed your women’s agenda at the core of what the federal government does?
HRC: Yes, we did. We had the first-ever ambassador for global women’s issues. That’s permanent now, and that’s a big deal because that is the beachhead.
Secretary Kerry to his credit has issued directions to embassies and diplomats about this continuing to be a priority for our government. There is also a much greater basis in research now that proves you cannot have peace and security without the participation of women. You can’t grow your GDP without opening the doors to full participation of women and girls in the formal economy.
JG: There’s a link between misogyny and stagnation in the Middle East, which in many ways is the world’s most dysfunctional region.
HRC: It’s now very provable, when you look at the data from the IMF and the World Bank and what opening the formal economy would mean to a country’s GDP. You have Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe in Japan who was elected to fix the economy after so many years of dysfunction in Japan, and one of the major elements in his plan is to get women into the workforce. If you do that, if I remember correctly, the GDP for Japan would go up nine percent. Well, it would go up 34 percent in Egypt. So it’s self-evident and provable.
The aftermath of a 2003 Hamas bus bombing in Jerusalem, in which 20 people were killed (Reuters)
In the spring of 2009, Roger Cohen, the New York Times columnist, surprised some of his readers by claiming that Iran’s remaining Jews were “living, working and worshiping in relative tranquility.”
Cohen wrote: “Perhaps I have a bias toward facts over words, but I say the reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran—its sophistication and culture—than all the inflammatory rhetoric.”
In this, and other, columns, Cohen appeared to be trying to convince his fellow Jews that they had less to fear from the Iran of Khamenei and (at the time) Ahmadinejad than they thought. To me, the column was a whitewash. It seemed (and seems) reasonable to worry about the intentions of those Iranian leaders who deny or minimize the Holocaust while hoping to annihilate the Jewish state, and who have funded and trained groups—Hezbollah and Hamas—that have as their goal the killing of Jews.
Cohen’s most acid critics came from within the Persian Jewish exile community. The vast majority of Iran’s Jews fled the country after the Khomeini revolution; many found refuge in Los Angeles. David Wolpe, the rabbi of Sinai Temple there, invited Cohen to speak to his congregants, about half of whom are Persian exiles, shortly after the column appeared. Cohen, to his credit, accepted the invitation. The encounter between Cohen and an audience of several hundred (mainly Jews, but also Bahais, members of a faith persecuted with great intensity by the Iranian regime) was tense but mainly civil (you can watch it here). For me, the most interesting moment came not in a discussion about the dubious health of Iran’s remnant Jewish population, but after Wolpe asked Cohen about the intentions of Iran and its allies toward Jews living outside Iran.
“Right now,” Wolpe said, “Israel is much more powerful than Hezbollah and Hamas. Let’s say tomorrow this was reversed. Let’s say Hamas had the firepower of Israel and Israel had the firepower of Hamas. What do you think would happen to Israel were the balance of power reversed?”
“I don’t know what would happen tomorrow,” Cohen answered. This response brought a measure of derisive laughter from the incredulous audience. “And it doesn’t matter that I don’t know because it’s not going to happen tomorrow or in one or two years.” Wolpe quickly told Cohen that he himself knows exactly what would happen if the power balance between Hamas and Israel were to be reversed. (Later, Wolpe told me that he thought Cohen could not have been so naïve as to misunderstand the nature of Hamas and Hezbollah, but instead was simply caught short by the question.)
At the time, Cohen suggested that he was uninterested in grappling with the nature of Hamas and its goals. “I reject the thinking behind your question,” he said. “It’s not useful to go there.”
“Going there,” however, is necessary, not only to understand why Israelis fear Hamas, but also to understand that the narrative advanced by Hamas apologists concerning the group's beliefs and goals is false. “Going there” also does not require enormous imagination, or a well-developed predisposition toward paranoia. It is, in my opinion, a dereliction of responsibility on the part of progressives not to try to understand the goals and beliefs of Islamist totalitarian movements.
(This post, you should know, is not a commentary on the particulars of the war between Israel and Hamas, a war in which Hamas baited Israel and Israel took the bait. Each time Israel kills an innocent Palestinian in its attempt to neutralize Hamas’s rockets, it represents a victory for Hamas, which has made plain its goal of getting Israel to kill innocent Gazans. Suffice it to say that Israel cannot afford many more “victories” of the sort it is seeking in Gaza right now. I supported a ceasefire early in this war precisely because I believed that the Israeli government had not thought through its strategic goals, or the methods for achieving those goals.)
While it is true that Hamas is expert at getting innocent Palestinians killed, it has made it very plain, in word and deed, that it would rather kill Jews. The following blood-freezing statement is from the group's charter: “The Islamic Resistance Movement aspires to the realization of Allah’s promise, no matter how long that should take. The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said: ‘The day of judgment will not come until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jews will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say ‘O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”
This is a frank and open call for genocide, embedded in one of the most thoroughly anti-Semitic documents you'll read this side of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Not many people seem to know that Hamas’s founding document is genocidal. Sometimes, the reasons for this lack of knowledge are benign; other times, as the New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch argues in his recent dismantling of Rashid Khalidi’s apologia for Hamas, this ignorance is a direct byproduct of a decision to mask evidence of Hamas’s innate theocratic fascism.
[T]he Hamas Covenant of 1988 notably replaced the Marxist-Leninist conspiracy theory of world politics with the classic anti-Semitic tropes of Nazism and European fascism, which the Islamists had absorbed when they collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. That influence is apparent in Article 22, which asserts that “supportive forces behind the enemy” have amassed great wealth: "With their money, they took control of the world media, news agencies, the press, publishing houses, broadcasting stations, and others. With their money they stirred revolutions in various parts of the world with the purpose of achieving their interests and reaping the fruit therein. With their money, they took control of the world media. They were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about here and there. With their money, they formed secret societies, such as Freemason, Rotary Clubs, the Lions and others in different parts of the world for the purpose of sabotaging societies and achieving Zionist interests. With their money they were able to control imperialistic countries and instigate them to colonize many countries in order to enable them to exploit their resources and spread corruption there."
The above paragraph of Article 22 could have been taken, almost word for word, from Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish propaganda texts and broadcasts.
The question Roger Cohen refused to answer at Sinai Temple was addressed in a recent post by Sam Harris, the atheist intellectual, who is opposed, as a matter of ideology, to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state (or to any country organized around a religion), but who for practical reasons supports its continued existence as a haven for an especially persecuted people, and also as a not-particularly religious redoubt in a region of the world deeply affected by religious fundamentalism. Referring not only to the Hamas charter, Harris writes that, “The discourse in the Muslim world about Jews is utterly shocking.”
Not only is there Holocaust denial—there’s Holocaust denial that then asserts that we will do it for real if given the chance. The only thing more obnoxious than denying the Holocaust is to say that it should have happened; it didn’t happen, but if we get the chance, we will accomplish it. There are children’s shows in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere that teach five-year-olds about the glories of martyrdom and about the necessity of killing Jews.
And this gets to the heart of the moral difference between Israel and her enemies. ...
What do we know of the Palestinians? What would the Palestinians do to the Jews in Israel if the power imbalance were reversed? Well, they have told us what they would do. For some reason, Israel’s critics just don’t want to believe the worst about a group like Hamas, even when it declares the worst of itself. We’ve already had a Holocaust and several other genocides in the 20th century. People are capable of committing genocide. When they tell us they intend to commit genocide, we should listen. There is every reason to believe that the Palestinians would kill all the Jews in Israel if they could. Would every Palestinian support genocide? Of course not. But vast numbers of them—and of Muslims throughout the world—would. Needless to say, the Palestinians in general, not just Hamas, have a history of targeting innocent noncombatants in the most shocking ways possible. They’ve blown themselves up on buses and in restaurants. They’ve massacred teenagers. They’ve murdered Olympic athletes. They now shoot rockets indiscriminately into civilian areas.
The first time I witnessed Hamas’s hatred of Jews manifest itself in large-scale, fatal violence was in late July of 1997, when two of the group’s suicide bombers detonated themselves in an open-air market in West Jerusalem. The attack took 16 lives, and injured 178. I happened to be only a few blocks from the market at the time of the attack, and arrived shortly after the paramedics and firefighters. Over the next hours, a scene unfolded that I would see again and again: screaming relatives; members of the Orthodox burial society scraping flesh off walls; the ground covered in blood and viscera. I remember another Hamas attack, on a bus in downtown Jerusalem, in which body parts of children were blown into the street by the force of the blast. At yet another bombing, I was with rescue workers as they recovered a human arm stuck high up in a tree.
After each of these attacks, Hamas leaders issued blood-curdling statements claiming credit, and promising more death. “The Jews will lose because they crave life but a true Muslim loves death,” a former Hamas leader, Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, told me in an interview in 2002. In the same interview he made the following imperishable statement: “People always talk about what the Germans did to the Jews, but the true question is, ‘What did the Jews do to the Germans?’”
I will always remember this interview not only because Rantisi's Judeophobia was breathtaking, but because just as I was leaving his apartment in Gaza City, a friend from Jerusalem called to tell me that she had just heard a massive explosion outside her office at the Hebrew University (not far, by the way, from an attack earlier today). A cafeteria had just been bombed, my friend told me. This was another Hamas operation, one which killed nine people, including a young woman of exceptional promise named Marla Bennett, a 24-year-old American student who wrote shortly before her death, “My friends and family in San Diego ask me to come home, it is dangerous here. I appreciate their concern. But there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be right now. I have a front-row seat for the history of the Jewish people.”
Hamas is an organization devoted to ending Jewish history. This is what so many Jews understand, and what so many non-Jews don’t. The novelist Amos Oz, who has led Israel's left-wing peace camp for decades, said in an interview last week that he doesn't see a prospect for compromise between Israel and Hamas. "I have been a man of compromise all my life," Oz said. "But even a man of compromise cannot approach Hamas and say: 'Maybe we meet halfway and Israel only exists on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.'"
In the years since it adopted its charter, Hamas leaders and spokesmen have reinforced its message again and again. Mahmoud Zahar said in 2006 that the group "will not change a single word in its covenant." To underscore the point, in 2010 Zahhar said, "Our ultimate plan is [to have] Palestine in its entirety. I say this loud and clear so that nobody will accuse me of employing political tactics. We will not recognize the Israeli enemy."
In 2011, the former Hamas minister of culture, Atallah Abu al-Subh, said that "the Jews are the most despicable and contemptible nation to crawl upon the face of the Earth, because they have displayed hostility to Allah. Allah will kill the Jews in the hell of the world to come, just like they killed the believers in the hell of this world." Just last week, a top Hamas official, Osama Hamdan, accused Jews of using Christian blood to make matzo. This is not a group, in other words, that is seeking the sort of peace that Amos Oz—or, for that matter, the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas—is seeking. People wonder why Israelis have such a visceral reaction to Hamas. The answer is easy. Israel is a small country, and most of its citizens know someone who was murdered by Hamas in its extended suicide-bombing campaigns; and most people also understand that if Hamas had its way, it would kill them as well.
Mourners at the funeral of an Israeli soldier (Reuters)
It is too early to say anything definitive about the Hamas decision to apparently break the ceasefire and attack an Israeli position, except that if it is true, as reports indicate, that Hamas militants came through a tunnel and carried underground and back into Gaza a live Israeli captive, then this moment could represent not another terrible, dispiriting incident in a terrible, dispiriting mini-war, but a fairly decisive turning point in which all swords are unsheathed.
This is assuming—as seems probable, but not 100 percent certain—that this raid is even what the Hamas leadership wanted (for what it's worth, its leaders, at the moment, seem to be owning this raid, suggesting that they are indeed doubling down in their war on Israel). If the events of earlier today happened as initial reports depict, then Israel will consider this incident an engraved invitation from Hamas to launch something close to a full-scale invasion of Gaza. Here are the factors that could lead Israel to decide to go all-in:
a) The compact between the Israeli army and Israeli parents is simple: You give us your sons, and we will do whatever we can to keep them alive. This includes conducting operations that get other soldiers killed. There will be near-unanimity in Israel that this soldier should be rescued, regardless of price to Israel, or certainly to the Palestinians in Gaza.
b) There is near-unanimity in Israel already that Hamas represents an unbearable threat. Add in the perfidy of a raid conducted after a ceasefire went into effect and near-unanimity becomes total unanimity. The most interesting article I've read in the past 24 hours is an interview with the Israeli novelist Amos Oz, the father of his country's peace-and-compromise movement, who opened the interview with Deutsche Welle in this manner:
Amoz Oz: I would like to begin the interview in a very unusual way: by presenting one or two questions to your readers and listeners. May I do that?
Deutsche Welle:Go ahead!
Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?
Question 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?
With these two questions I pass the interview to you.
The point is, if Amos Oz, a severe critic of his country's policies toward the Palestinians, sounds no different on the subject of the Hamas threat than the right-most ministers in Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing cabinet, then there will be a national consensus that it is not enough to manage the Hamas rocket-and-tunnel threat, but that it must be eliminated if at all possible. This doesn't mean that the Israeli government wants to see the Hamas government in Gaza replaced. What it could mean is that the Israeli public demands that its leaders ensure them that the tunnel threat, in particular, is neutralized in a decisive way.
c) For Israelis who are immune, unlike Amos Oz, to the criticism of outsiders, the world's inability, or unwillingness, to understand the Hamas threat in the way that Oz (and most everyone else in Israel) understands it suggests that there is nothing Israel can do, short of national suicide, to stop the condemnation of their country. Which, of course, frees Israel, in their minds, to take whatever action it deems necessary to take. In other words, don't be overly surprised by news later today of a massive Israeli army reserve call-up.
An Israeli officer in a Hamas tunnel (Jack Guez/Reuters)
Things change, of course—the only constant in the Middle East is sudden and dramatic change—but as I write it seems as if Israel is losing the war in Gaza, even as it wins the battle against Hamas’s rocket arsenal, and even as it destroys the tunnels meant to convey terrorists underground to Israel (and to carry Israeli hostages back to Gaza).
This is not the first time Israel has found itself losing on the battlefield of perception. Why is it happening again? Here are six possible reasons:
1. In a fight between a state actor and a non-state actor, the non-state actor can win merely by surviving. The party with tanks and planes is expected to win; the non-state group merely has to stay alive in order to declare victory. In a completely decontextualized, emotion-driven environment, Hamas can portray itself as the besieged upstart, even when it is the party that rejects ceasefires, and in particular because it is skilled at preventing journalists from documenting the activities of its armed wing. (I am differentiating here between Hamas's leadership and Gaza's civilians, who are genuinely besieged, from all directions.)
2. Hamas’s strategy is to bait Israel into killing Palestinian civilians, and Israel usually takes the bait. This time, because of the cautious nature of its prime minister, Israel waited longer than usual before succumbing to the temptation of bait-taking, but it took it all the same. (As I’ve written, the seemingly miraculous Iron Dome anti-rocket system could have provided Israel with the space to be more patient than it was.) Hamas’s principal goal is killing Jews, and it is very good at this (for those who have forgotten about Hamas's achievements in this area, here is a reminder, and also here and here), but it knows that it advances its own (perverse) narrative even more when it induces Israel to kill Palestinian civilians. This tactic would not work if the world understood this, and rejected it. But in the main, it doesn’t. Why people don’t see the cynicism at the heart of terrorist groups like Hamas is a bit of a mystery. Here is The Washington Post on the subject:
The depravity of Hamas’s strategy seems lost on much of the outside world, which — following the terrorists’ script — blames Israel for the civilian casualties it inflicts while attempting to destroy the tunnels. While children die in strikes against the military infrastructure that Hamas’s leaders deliberately placed in and among homes, those leaders remain safe in their own tunnels. There they continue to reject cease-fire proposals, instead outlining a long list of unacceptable demands.
3. People talk a lot about the Jewish lobby. But the worldwide Muslim lobby is bigger, comprising, among other components, 54 Muslim-majority states in the United Nations. Many Muslims naturally sympathize with the Palestinian cause. They make their voices heard, and they help shape a global anti-Israel narrative, in particular by focusing relentlessly on Gaza to the exclusion of conflicts in which Muslims are being killed in even greater numbers, but by Muslims (I wrote about this phenomenon here).
4. If you've spent any time these past few weeks on Twitter, or in Paris, you know that anti-Semitism is another source of Israel’s international isolation. One of the notable features of this war, brought to light by the ubiquity and accessibility of social media, is the open, unabashed expression of vitriolic Jew-hatred. Anti-Semitism has been with us for more than 2,000 years; it is an ineradicable and shape-shifting virus. The reaction to the Gaza war—from the Turkish prime minister, who compared Israel's behavior unfavorably to that of Hitler's, to the Lebanese journalist who demanded the nuclear eradication of Israel, to, of course, the anti-Jewish riots in France—is a reminder that much of the world is not opposed to Israel because of its settlement policy, but because it is a Jewish country.
5. Israel’s political leadership has done little in recent years to make their cause seem appealing. It is impossible to convince a Judeophobe that Israel can do anything good or useful, short of collective suicide. But there are millions of people of good will across the world who look at the decision-making of Israel’s government and ask themselves if this is a country doing all it can do to bring about peace and tranquility in its region. Hamas is a theocratic fascist cult committed to the obliteration of Israel. But it doesn’t represent all Palestinians. Polls suggest that it may very well not represent all of the Palestinians in Gaza. There is a spectrum of Palestinian opinion, just as there is a spectrum of Jewish opinion.
I don’t know if the majority of Palestinians would ultimately agree to a two-state solution. But I do know that Israel, while combating the extremists, could do a great deal more to buttress the moderates. This would mean, in practical terms, working as hard as possible to build wealth and hope on the West Bank. A moderate-minded Palestinian who watches Israel expand its settlements on lands that most of the world believes should fall within the borders of a future Palestinian state might legitimately come to doubt Israel’s intentions. Reversing the settlement project, and moving the West Bank toward eventual independence, would not only give Palestinians hope, but it would convince Israel’s sometimes-ambivalent friends that it truly seeks peace, and that it treats extremists differently than it treats moderates. And yes, I know that in the chaos of the Middle East, which is currently a vast swamp of extremism, the thought of a West Bank susceptible to the predations of Islamist extremists is a frightening one. But independence—in particular security independence—can be negotiated in stages. The Palestinians must go free, because there is no other way. A few months ago, President Obama told me how he views Israel's future absent some sort of arrangement with moderate Palestinians:
[M]y assessment, which is shared by a number of Israeli observers ... is there comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices. Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?
Obama raised a series of prescient questions. Of course, the Israeli government's primary job at the moment is to keep its citizens from being killed or kidnapped by Hamas. But it should work to find an enduring solution to the problem posed by Muslim extremism. Part of that fix is military, but another part isn't.
6. Speaking of the Obama administration, the cause of a two-state solution would be helped, and Israel's standing would be raised, if the secretary of state, John Kerry, realized that such a solution will be impossible to achieve so long as an aggressive and armed Hamas remains in place in Gaza. Kerry's recent efforts to negotiate a ceasefire have come to nothing in part because his proposals treat Hamas as a legitimate organization with legitimate security needs, as opposed to a group listed by Kerry's State Department as a terror organization devoted to the physical elimination of one of America's closest allies. Here is David Horovitz's understanding of Kerry's proposals:
It seemed inconceivable that the secretary’s initiative would specify the need to address Hamas’s demands for a lifting of the siege of Gaza, as though Hamas were a legitimate injured party acting in the interests of the people of Gaza — rather than the terror group that violently seized control of the Strip in 2007, diverted Gaza’s resources to its war effort against Israel, and could be relied upon to exploit any lifting of the “siege” in order to import yet more devastating weaponry with which to kill Israelis.
I'm not sure why Kerry's proposals for a ceasefire seem to indulge the organization that initiated this current war. Perhaps because Kerry may be listening more to Qatar, which is Hamas's primary funder, than he is listening to the Jordanians, Emiratis, Saudis, and Egyptians, all of whom oppose Hamas to an equivalent or greater degree than does their ostensible Israeli adversary. In any case, more on this later, as more details emerge about Kerry's efforts. For purposes of this discussion, I'll just say that Israel won't have a chance of winning the current struggle against Hamas's tunnel-diggers and rocket squads if its principal ally doesn't appear to fully and publicly understand Hamas's nihilistic war aims, even as it works to shape more constructive Israeli policies in other, related areas.
The responses to what I write about the Hamas war fall into several categories. My least favorite sort of response is the kind that invokes Hitler in some way. Here is an e-mail that is representative: “I hope Hitler kills you and your family.” (Yes, it was written in the present tense.) Then there are the messages from those who seek the elimination of Israel. These run along the lines of, “Jeffrey wants blood, give him more Palestinian blood!” (I’m not sure if this tweet was riffing off the blood libel or not.) Like many people, I am legitimately shocked (not “shocked, shocked” but actually shocked) by the level of grotesque anti-Jewish invective seemingly (though not actually) prompted by the war, particularly in Europe. I’ve been getting mail like this for a long time, so it is the intensity and volume, rather than the content, that is so surprising.
One of my other least-favorite types of responses comes from the opposite end of the spectrum, from people who ask me why the media is so biased against Israel, and then cite the work of this reporter or that reporter—in this war, usually someone currently stationed in Gaza—who appears, to my interlocutor, to have an anti-Israel agenda. It’s a question I’ve seen for years, and it is usually asked by people who believe that Israel only has public relations problems, as opposed to actual problems, in addition to public relations problems.
I can’t speak with great knowledge about the reporters from European and other overseas outlets (I do have an understanding of the sympathies of many British reporters), but I tend to think that journalists from American outlets are doing a fine job in dangerous conditions of covering a horrible war. It is true that Hamas makes it difficult to report on matters it would rather not see come to light (this is why you see so few photos, if any, of armed Hamas fighters). It is also true that reporters in the field could do a more thorough job of asking Hamas leaders harder questions (such as, Why are you rejecting ceasefire offers; why did you place your command bunkers under hospitals; and so on), but working conditions are very difficult, and they are trying the best they can. (I’ve covered various of these mini-Middle East wars in the past, and, believe me, working conditions makes it difficult enough just to write down what you’re seeing six inches in front of your face.) In any case, these questions are sometimes best raised by analyzers and editorialists.
There is another question about media coverage that has been bothering me, however, one of proportionality. I was struck, over the weekend, by the lack of coverage of the Syrian civil war, in which the death count recently passed 170,000. By Sunday night, it had become clear that the weekend in toll in Syria would stand at roughly 700 dead—a larger number, obviously, than the weekend toll in Gaza (and more than the total number of deaths in this latest iteration of the Gaza war to date.) I tweeted the following in response to this news out of Syria: “I sincerely hope the @nytimes covers the slaughter in Syria – 700 dead in 48 hours – in tomorrow’s paper. Very important story as well.”
This was my sincere hope, and it was to my sincere surprise that Monday’s newspaper contained no information whatsoever about the weekend slaughter in Syria. The front page was devoted mainly to Gaza and Ukraine. But there was nothing inside either, and nothing on the website. As far as I can tell, the Times, as of this writing, has not addressed this most recent round of Syria carnage in an even semi-comprehensive way. It goes without saying that continuing violence in Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, Yemen, and so on, has not received much attention from the Times in recent days. (I’m singling out the Times because it is America’s best, most thorough and most important newspaper. I suppose you could accuse me of having a double standard. So be it.)
There are a couple of very good reasons why coverage of Israel and its troubles is so broad, and even obsessive. The first is a simple, technical one: Journalists can best cover what they can see. Hamas, despite its various restrictions, makes it easy for journalists to observe scenes of destruction in Gaza. It is much harder to operate in Syria (or rural Nigeria), and it is safer to operate in Gaza than it is in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. (For those of you who are wondering: In my time in Gaza, Hamas officials often gave me more access, and more respect, than officials of the more moderate Fatah, which at one point had me kidnapped and interrogated.)
The second reason is audience interest. Stories about Israel, and about Jews, almost automatically rise to the top of the Times’ “most-emailed” list. Stories about Miramshah or Fallujah, not nearly as much. I’m guessing this is true for other American outlets as well. And then there is a sound political reason why this conflict becomes the focus of so much coverage. Israel is a close ally of the U.S., and a recipient of American military and non-military help. This may make you very happy, or very unhappy, but the fact of it is incontrovertible. Therefore, the U.S. has a direct relationship with one of the players in this conflict (both, actually, because the Palestinian Authority is the recipient of a great deal of American aid as well). There is also the issue of double standards, which I wrote about here at length, but in short, Israel is a Western-style democratic state and so reporters are more apt to be interested in its behavior, and judgmental about its behavior, than in the behavior of despotic regimes.
But the Arab Spring (or Awakening, or whatever word you choose) has given lie to the idea—shorthanded as “linkage”—that the key to American success in the broader Middle East is dependent on finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This idea, that all roads run through Jerusalem, has traditionally motivated a great deal of journalistic and foreign policy expert interest in this conflict. Finding a solution to this conflict is very important to the future of Israelis and Palestinians, of course, but not nearly so much to Americans. A peaceful resolution to this conflict would do little to bring about good governance in Arab states, or an end to Islamist extremism in the greater Middle East. Which brings me back to Syria. The war in Syria (and Iraq, since it is more or less a single war now) is of greater national security importance to the United States than the war in Gaza, and it should be covered in a way that reflects this reality.
In Damascus, Bashar al-Assad, the closest Arab ally of America’s main Middle East adversary, Iran, wages a brutal war against his country’s Sunni Muslim majority, a war that has prompted, in turn, the explosive growth of Al Qaeda-style Sunni extremist groups that now control broad swaths of both countries. These groups pose a direct national security threat to the United States, as the Obama administration has acknowledged. The Syria conflict is also one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes of the post-World War II era. So from a moral perspective, and from a national security perspective, what happens in Syria should be of first-order interest to the U.S. media. But it is clearly not.
Why is this so? I can spend all day speculating, but one explanation for this lack of coverage is a relative lack of interest in the Syria/Iraq theater by Arabs and Muslims, or at least relative lack of interest in comparison to the obvious interest in the Gaza crisis. The American media takes at least some of its cues on Syria from the intensity of coverage in the Arab world. The Washington bureau chief of Al-Hayat, Joyce Karam, was one of the few people to notice the weekend death toll in Syria. She tweeted, in reference to anti-Israel protests in Pakistan, “Syria is essentially Gaza x320 death toll, x30 number of refugees, but no protest in Pakistan…”
I asked her why she thought this is so. Her answer: “Only reason I can think of is Muslim killing Muslim or Arab killing Arab seems more acceptable than Israel killing Arabs.”
Judging by the number and scale of anti-Assad protests (or anti-ISIS protests) in the Muslim world, she is obviously on to something. The Muslim world does seem more interested in Arabs who are killed by Jews than in Arabs killed by Arabs, and I’m guessing that this influences the scope and scale of the Gaza coverage as well. Why this is so—why the horrific levels of violence across the Arab world don’t seem to prompt such intense feelings, either in the Muslim or non-Muslim worlds, is a subject for another time. What is true for now is that Syria should be covered with the same focus and intensity that is applied to the war in Gaza.