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Posts For: May 5, 2013

Wilkerson’s Shame. And Colin Powell’s

On May 2, Lawrence Wilkerson, a close confidant of Colin Powell who served as chief-of-staff during Powell’s tenure as secretary of state, raised eyebrows when he told Current TV that reports of Syrian chemical weapons use might have been Israeli “false flag operations.” His pronouncement—which was part speculation and part sourced to his friends in the intelligence community—was quickly picked up and rebroadcast as fact by such outlets as Iran’s Press TV and Hezbollah’s Al-Manar.

As the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) points out, this is hardly the first time Wilkerson has made bizarre accusations, but CAMERA does not go far enough. Wilkerson acted as a definitive source for any number of stories throughout the Bush administration until now. As Powell’s chief-of-staff, journalists accepted his pabulum uncritically, never asking whether Wilkerson was at meetings for which he purported to offer first-hand accounts. The fact is that chiefs-of-staff do not go to meetings; they manage offices. Many of those whom Wilkerson pretends to have had conversations with say they never met him.

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On May 2, Lawrence Wilkerson, a close confidant of Colin Powell who served as chief-of-staff during Powell’s tenure as secretary of state, raised eyebrows when he told Current TV that reports of Syrian chemical weapons use might have been Israeli “false flag operations.” His pronouncement—which was part speculation and part sourced to his friends in the intelligence community—was quickly picked up and rebroadcast as fact by such outlets as Iran’s Press TV and Hezbollah’s Al-Manar.

As the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) points out, this is hardly the first time Wilkerson has made bizarre accusations, but CAMERA does not go far enough. Wilkerson acted as a definitive source for any number of stories throughout the Bush administration until now. As Powell’s chief-of-staff, journalists accepted his pabulum uncritically, never asking whether Wilkerson was at meetings for which he purported to offer first-hand accounts. The fact is that chiefs-of-staff do not go to meetings; they manage offices. Many of those whom Wilkerson pretends to have had conversations with say they never met him.

Nevertheless, Wilkerson remains central to some of the most pernicious—and false—rumors and conspiracies surrounding George W. Bush’s tenure:

  • Craig Unger, a prolific journalist who frequently contributes to The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, used Wilkerson as a source in his conspiratorial polemic about so-called neoconservatives (Unger uses the term more synonymously with Jews than with the true meaning of the movement) and the Christian Right.
  • Alan Kennedy-Shaffer, an Obama campaign operative and Huffington Post contributor, used Wilkerson as a source to slander Vice President Dick Cheney and to cast blame for intelligence failures overshadowing Operation Iraqi Freedom.
  • Much of the demonstrated falsehood regarding an alleged 2003 Iranian grand bargain offer that Iran lobbyist Trita Parsi put forward in his two books rests on conversations with Wilkerson.
  • Both the Washington Post and the New York Times regularly used Wilkerson to tar Republicans.
  • Journalists like Laura Rozen and Jeff Stein, and the Atlantic Council’s Barbara Slavin (formerly of USA Today and The Washington Times), also relied disproportionately on Lawrence Wilkerson to confirm wild conspiracy theories. They appear to have been so consumed with partisan animus that they did not bother to fact-check his allegations with those who had first-hand knowledge of events he purported to describe.
  • Steve Clemons—one of Chuck Hagel’s staunchest supporters—worked tirelessly to promote Wilkerson and his views.
  • Scott Bonn, an academic at Drew University, also cited Wilkerson to support the notion that Bush lied in the run-up to the Iraq war.

Wilkerson was a source for journalists not only after Powell retired from government, but also during his tenure. The only difference was before 2005 he would speak on background, while after 2005 he would let his hatred for anyone with whom he disagreed shine through. That Wilkerson is a fabulist who prioritizes polemic over truth should be readily clear as his outbursts become increasingly bizarre. That no journalist has yet to go back and trace how many stories they accept as conventional wisdom were based on rotten foundations is a testimony to how unprofessional many of the writers, journalists, and bloggers cited above can be. Those who quoted Wilkerson became his willing accomplices. Together, they represent the rot that permeates the Fourth Estate.

The story does not stop there, however. It is unlikely that Powell was ignorant of Wilkerson’s actions; rather, Powell appeared all too willing to turn a blind eye in a dirty game to win a policy debate by tarring his opponents. Nor was Powell likely unaware of Wilkerson’s dangerous obsession with American policymakers who happened to be Jewish. It is quite easy to interpret Powell’s persistent silence and failure to repudiate a man whose credibility is solely based on his relationship to Powell as an endorsement for Wilkerson’s hateful views. Wilkerson’s shame is Colin Powell’s as well. Powell’s silence shows his own character is likely not much different from that of the colonel who was his closest aide.

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Memo to the President: Words Matter

Well, now we know why he needs a teleprompter.

The New York Times reports this morning, in its lead story (with a two-column head, yet) that, “Confronted with evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, President Obama finds himself in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.” Late last summer, as the Times explains:

In a frenetic series of meetings, the White House devised a 48-hour plan to deter President Bashar al-Assad of Syria by using intermediaries like Russia and Iran to send a message that one official summarized as, “Are you crazy?” But when Mr. Obama emerged to issue the public version of the warning, he went further than many aides realized he would.

Moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus,” the president declared in response to a question at a news conference, to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the “red line” came from. With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back.

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Well, now we know why he needs a teleprompter.

The New York Times reports this morning, in its lead story (with a two-column head, yet) that, “Confronted with evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, President Obama finds himself in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.” Late last summer, as the Times explains:

In a frenetic series of meetings, the White House devised a 48-hour plan to deter President Bashar al-Assad of Syria by using intermediaries like Russia and Iran to send a message that one official summarized as, “Are you crazy?” But when Mr. Obama emerged to issue the public version of the warning, he went further than many aides realized he would.

Moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus,” the president declared in response to a question at a news conference, to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the “red line” came from. With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back.

“The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,” said one senior official, who, like others, discussed the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. But “what the president said in August was unscripted,” another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the “nuance got completely dropped.”

If President Obama had spent more than two years in the Senate before taking a leave of absence to run for president, he might have come to understand just how important “nuance” is in diplomacy, how every word spoken by the president is parsed and weighed in chancelleries around the world. He might know how small slips can have big consequences. George Bush was savagely criticized after 9/11 for using the word “crusade,” without regard for how sensitive Muslims are about that word. In 1962 President Kennedy was very careful to call his deployment of the navy to prevent more missiles being delivered to Cuba a “quarantine,” rather than a “blockade,” for the latter is, explicitly, an act of war.

This would seem to be more evidence that the Obama presidency is in trouble. That “senior officials” in the White House are willing to talk under a cloak of anonymity about how the president blew it diplomatically and for the most liberal major newspaper in the country to make a big deal of it is not good news for the president.

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The Fear of an Israeli Referendum

In his post supporting a referendum on any Palestinian peace agreement (“Democracy is Not an Obstacle to Peace”), Jonathan Tobin asked why peace processors would possibly fear a referendum:

It is true that if a peace agreement were to be submitted to a vote, that would raise the possibility that Israel’s voters would reject it. But if a deal was truly in Israel’s best interests, what exactly are advocates of a two-state solution worried about?

It’s a good question. Let me try to address it–because the answer is probably something other than a fear that the referendum might fail.

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In his post supporting a referendum on any Palestinian peace agreement (“Democracy is Not an Obstacle to Peace”), Jonathan Tobin asked why peace processors would possibly fear a referendum:

It is true that if a peace agreement were to be submitted to a vote, that would raise the possibility that Israel’s voters would reject it. But if a deal was truly in Israel’s best interests, what exactly are advocates of a two-state solution worried about?

It’s a good question. Let me try to address it–because the answer is probably something other than a fear that the referendum might fail.

To appreciate the real answer, it is useful to review the reason a referendum was rejected in 2005, when Ariel Sharon proposed his disengagement plan, left the Likud after the party referendum rejected it, and thereafter refused to allow a national referendum. At the time, Haaretz editorialized against a referendum, citing the defeat of the EU constitution in a French referendum:

Legislatures, governments and heads of the executive branch (presidents or prime ministers) are elected in order to bear the burden of making difficult decisions. Abandoning this responsibility and transferring it to the general public, which does not weigh the constraints and the available resources the way elected officials are supposed to do, transfers the vote from the domain of the intellect to that of emotion … Sunday’s vote in France constitutes fresh, additional proof of why Israel must not adopt this system.” [Emphasis added].

The Haaretz editorial approached self-parody–an elite paper with a small circulation was telling the public it was not smart enough to appreciate the issues, because the public was allegedly not equipped to “bear the burden of making difficult decisions”; it was short on intellect and long on emotion; it didn’t “weigh the constraints” or consider “the available resources”; and if you doubt that, just look at France–fresh proof of what happens when you let the public vote!

But the real reason behind the opposition to a Gaza referendum was not that it might lose. Public opinion polls showed it would win a majority of Israeli votes. Nor was the real reason the technical objections advanced by those such as the prominent Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri, who argued in a Jerusalem Post column that there was no Israeli precedent for a referendum; there was no established procedure for one; it would take too much time; it was too difficult to frame the precise question for the voters; etc.

All the problems cited by Avineri seemed superable to me, and I asked him about them: couldn’t the problems be handled, and wouldn’t a referendum provide a needed legitimacy for the withdrawal plan? In response, Avineri told me the real reason he thought a referendum was a bad idea–one he said he could not put in print: the referendum would pass, but it would not receive a majority of the Jewish vote. It would pass only because of Israeli Arab votes, and then it would be politically impossible to withdraw from Gaza.

A withdrawal from Judea and Samaria on a narrow majority vote, however, would be problematic irrespective of the issue that concerned Avineri. Withdrawing 8,000 people from Gaza was difficult and divisive, and produced nothing but a new war. Withdrawing from historic Jewish land on the West Bank, acquired in a defensive war, with critical strategic significance–uprooting tens of thousands (the demographic equivalent of millions of Americans), destroying longstanding Jewish communities, exposing the long Eastern border to the same military consequences resulting from the Northern and Southern withdrawals–is not possible without something approaching a public consensus.

The only peace agreement that might produce such a consensus is one that meets Benjamin Netanyahu’s criteria: an end-of-claims agreement that includes Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, with defensible borders, reflecting realities on the ground.

Peace processors might be satisfied with an agreement falling short of those criteria, believing–as Haaretz and Avineri did–that a peace agreement will itself create peace, and that the issue is too important to risk a referendum. But the Palestinian Authority has repeatedly promised its own public a referendum, and no peace processor has objected to it as an obstacle to peace. On the contrary, it is critical that any eventual peace agreement be endorsed by a Palestinian referendum, not simply signed by an aging holdover president. And if the peace agreement meets Netanyahu’s criteria, the Haaretz/Avineri fears about an Israeli referendum will not likely be a problem. 

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America’s Rapidly Vanishing Credibility

If you listen to the Pentagon and the White House, there is no viable military option in Syria—even American air strikes supposedly would be too dangerous because of Bashar Assad’s anti-aircraft defenses. The Israeli Air Force doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo, however.

For at least the second time since January, Israel attacked a target in Syria, hitting a warehouse in Damascus on Friday that apparently stored advanced Fateh-110 missiles shipped from Iran and intended for Hezbollah. In late January, Israel similarly struck SA-17 anti-aircraft weapons intended for Hezbollah. There are so-far unconfirmed reports of yet another Israeli air strike in Damascus on Sunday morning.

Israel is doing what it must to defend itself—to prevent Hezbollah from taking advantage of the current conflict to further enhance its already formidable arsenal of weapons aimed at Israel. Its neighbors know that Israel is a serious country that acts when threatened. Not so with the U.S. that has announced a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons in Syria but refuses to act even when that line has been crossed. Instead, administration officials are leaking word that the “red line” phrase was an off-the-cuff mistake by the president.

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If you listen to the Pentagon and the White House, there is no viable military option in Syria—even American air strikes supposedly would be too dangerous because of Bashar Assad’s anti-aircraft defenses. The Israeli Air Force doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo, however.

For at least the second time since January, Israel attacked a target in Syria, hitting a warehouse in Damascus on Friday that apparently stored advanced Fateh-110 missiles shipped from Iran and intended for Hezbollah. In late January, Israel similarly struck SA-17 anti-aircraft weapons intended for Hezbollah. There are so-far unconfirmed reports of yet another Israeli air strike in Damascus on Sunday morning.

Israel is doing what it must to defend itself—to prevent Hezbollah from taking advantage of the current conflict to further enhance its already formidable arsenal of weapons aimed at Israel. Its neighbors know that Israel is a serious country that acts when threatened. Not so with the U.S. that has announced a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons in Syria but refuses to act even when that line has been crossed. Instead, administration officials are leaking word that the “red line” phrase was an off-the-cuff mistake by the president.

This is hardly a reassuring message, and one that regimes across the region are receiving loud and clear–including Iran that must now know that Obama’s threats to stop its nuclear program are ultimately toothless. Israel, no doubt, is getting the same message: Prime Minister Netanyahu must realize that he cannot count on American action to stop the Iranian program. As it showed in Syria, Israel knows that if it doesn’t act to defend itself, then no one will. That will make it much harder for Obama to dissuade Israel from striking the Iranian nuclear facilities. Credibility is a precious coin in international affairs and unfortunately the president is rapidly devaluing America’s currency in that arena.

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