In his book on politics in the Arab world, “Cruelty and Silence,” the Iraqi intellectual Kanan Makiya made a telling point about the opposition to the first Gulf war of 1991, when a U.S.-led coalition ejected Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime from Kuwait.
“A principled opposition to the Gulf war does not require,” Makiya wrote, “(a) denying that the Iraqi regime gassed its own citizens; (b) inventing dates to prove that the United States not only started the fighting on the ground (which it did) but that it sent Iraq into Kuwait (which it didn’t); or (c) generally imputing a reasonableness to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait which it never possessed.”
Sadly, it is an ingrained feature of Middle Eastern politics that myths, distortions, errors, and downright lies disfigure our attempts to hold a rational, fact-based exchange. We expect dictators—Saddam then, Bashar al-Assad now—to trade in dishonesty, and we recognize, too, that there is not much we can do about that, other than contradicting them at every turn. But we like to think we hold our own elected leaders, and more generally, political bodies and institutions working in the democratic world, to higher standards.
It’s not just that we expect rectitude and transparency. We also believe that politicians understand that it’s in their interest not to lie, for the sake of their own credibility. Our acceptance of the moral norms of a democratic society and our desire for self-preservation is, you might say, what keeps us honest.
This week, however, I’ve seen two examples of behavior suggesting that we in the West are not above trafficking in the kinds of lies that have made the Middle East such a wretched location for nearly a century.
Let me begin with the first example: no less than President Obama, who told the Vox magazine that our fear of Islamist terrorism (even at this point, I’m paraphrasing, since Obama refuses to use the word “Islamist”) is stoked by an irresponsible media. “What’s the famous saying about local newscasts, right? If it bleeds, it leads, right?” Obama joked, clearly warming to his theme.
As Obama sees it, there are a bunch of crazy zealots out there who just wanna kill people. That’s it, that’s all. All this stuff about a specific assault on Western values and free speech and women’s rights emanating from the Islamic world is wide of the mark.
So when you think like Obama, you inevitably get to a gem like this one: “It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you’ve got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.”
This is a view of international affairs as a slasher movie. There’s no need to explain why Islamic State beheads and enslaves its captives, no need to point out that it’s because they are the wrong religion, or the wrong gender, or they are depicted as puppets of some grandiose Jewish conspiracy. After all, they’re just crazy.
And there is certainly no need to examine why a kosher supermarket was chosen, out of thousands of locations in Paris, as the location for a massacre. No need to say that the “folks” killed were Jews. After all, they were “randomly” selected. It could have happened anywhere; inconvenient details, like the fact that this atrocity occurred at a Jewish store at precisely the time, a Friday afternoon, that “folks” would be doing their Shabbat shopping, are just a distraction.
Example number two concerns the J Street lobby, an organization that has established lying as its basic currency ever since it determined that its mission, as expressed by its clownishly pompous leader Jeremy Ben-Ami, was to be Obama’s “blocking back.” But even by their standards, J Street has now done something extraordinary, claiming, with no evidence, that 84 percent of American Jews support Obama over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when it comes to Iran’s nukes!
After being called out, J Street trotted out a three-month poll it conducted, in which 84 percent of respondents said they would support a deal that would prevent Iran from weaponizing its nuclear program. Frankly, so would I—but that is not the deal that Obama is negotiating, and to claim that people who genuinely don’t want to see an Iranian nuclear weapon are supporting the president over Israel’s prime minister, even as he makes concession after concession to the mullahs, is an outright, willful lie.
What both the Obama and the J Street episodes represent is an Orwellian inversion of reality—lies become truth, truth becomes a lie. According to Obama, we are not at war with the jihadis, who are more properly understood as sociopaths. According to J Street, the U.S. administration is not creating the foundations for Iran to become the dominant power in the Middle East; instead, it is negotiating a “reasonable” solution to the nuclear question. In J Street’s view, we should all see plainly—if only troublemakers like Netanyahu would quiet down—that the diplomatic track with Iran is the only show in town.
Now look at where this dangerous nonsense leads us. A significant number of Democrats are threatening to boycott Netanyahu’s forthcoming speech on Iran to Congress, thereby allowing themselves to be co-opted by the anti-Semites of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Europe is bewildered and scared; after all, the French, British, and German leaders have clearly identified both Islamism and anti-Semitism as civilizational threats, and now the American president is telling them otherwise. Dissidents and democracy activists fighting Islamism in the Arab and wider Islamic worlds have been abandoned, after being told, in effect, that they don’t know what they’re talking about. And resentment towards America’s current leadership continues to grow among its allies: not just the Israelis, but the conservative Arab states like Saudi Arabia, too.
I have no words of comfort at this point. When I speak to friends and colleagues, I am struck by how often the figure of Winston Churchill, who spent much of the 1930s warning about the Nazi threat in splendid isolation, is mentioned as a reason for us steel ourselves now. And then they will remark, regretfully, that one of Obama’s first decisions was to remove the bust of Churchill from the Oval Office.
Perhaps there was a deeper meaning to that single act than we realized at the time.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.