All of politics seems to rest on claims and counterclaims – one side says something is true and the other side says no, it’s not. You could look at the empirical evidence and argue that one side or the other is just flat-out lying – but no one ever says that. Politicians just say the other guy is wrong, or misunderstands things, or seems to be as dumb as a rock – but you never say the other guy is lying. You don’t ascribe motivation.
The most obvious instance of this has to do with that guy from USC, Arthur Laffer and his famous Laffer Curve – that describes how lowering taxes actually increases tax revenue. You see, all that money not paid to the government for roads and bridges and schools and such would be freed up for private investment. And we’d all become more prosperous as the private-sector economy blossoms, and then, as so many people are making scads of money, tax revenues would actually increase, even if tax rates were next to nothing – or actually because the tax rates are next to nothing. And the government could buy everyone a pony.
This seems counterintuitive – George H. W. Bush, when first running for president, called it Voodoo Economics – but when that run didn’t work out for him and he became the vice presidential candidate to Ronald Regan, he changed his tune. And later, as president, he asked us to read his lips about no new taxes. He knew there was no fighting that idea. He actually bought into it, or swallowed hard and pretended he did. Of course there’s no proof that things work that way and there is much proof they don’t – collect less money and, oddly enough, you actually have less money to work with. Collect even less and, surprise, you have even less. But it was a cool idea. And no one was lying, really. It was just a theory. One day, somewhere, somehow, it might work – you never know.
The current variation on this comes from the House Majority Leader trying to convince us of this:
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) continued the rollout of the House GOP economic growth package Saturday, using the party’s weekly address to press the case that Republicans will get government out of the way of job creators. “For too long, Washington has relied on gimmicks or government-knows-best solutions,” said Cantor, the House majority leader. “No more. Now, more than ever, our nation needs small businesses and entrepreneurs to get people back to work.”
If the government tries nothing, and spends nothing, and does nothing – cutting most everything – the economy will roar back to life. Yes, it’s just a theory, and he doesn’t point to one place anywhere, ever, that this has worked. But it’s a matter of faith that is will work, because, theoretically, it should work. So he’s not exactly lying. On the other hand Jonathan Chait joked in a message to Republicans – “Herbert Hoover called. He wants his fiscal policy back.” And that wasn’t very nice. Yes, this was tried before. It didn’t work. But no one is calling anyone a liar.
But then things get a whole lot trickier when you move beyond talking about how things work, or ought to work, and start talking about what words really mean, not what people think they mean. Many years ago it was Bill Clinton on national television, staring down his critics and doing that accusatory finger-pointing thing he did. He did NOT have sex with that woman. That’s what he said. And of course he was lying, or he wasn’t lying – depending on how you define sex. So, how do YOU define sex? Later, in explaining what might have been false testimony on the matter – perjury actually – he said, under oath, that he had told the truth in his previous statements under oath, depending on what the meaning of “is” is. Words can be slippery and not mean what they seem. One is reminded of what Marilyn Monroe once said about a certain photo shoot – “It’s not true that I had nothing on. I had the radio on.”
And here we go again. In late May, President Obama recommended advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks by starting negotiations with “the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” This has been the United States policy for several decades, and even Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had expressed support for the idea – and he still sort of does. A few days later Obama followed up on this in a speech at AIPAC – “By definition, it means that the parties themselves – Israelis and Palestinians – will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. That’s what ‘mutually agreed-upon swaps’ means.”
That’s clear – no problem, right? No, of course there was a problem. Netanyahu said Israel would never go back to those 1967 borders, and Obama had better come around and shape up. And Obama had to repeat himself. Didn’t you hear that bit about mutually agreed swaps – weren’t you listening? Netanyahu said oh, I’m so glad you changed your mind about those. Many pointed out that Obama didn’t change his mind – he just repeated what he said – and that this was a wholly manufactured bit of posturing. There really was nothing there to argue about.
Okay, mutually agreed swaps of land means what it means. But somehow Charles Krauthammer managed to disagree – “It means nothing of the sort. ‘Mutually’ means both parties have to agree. And if one side doesn’t? Then, by definition, you’re back to the 1967 lines.”
What? It seems M. J. Rosenberg argues here that Krauthammer is pretty much lying:
“Mutually agreed” means mutually agreed. If, in the course of negotiation, Israelis say “we want all the land” and Palestinians say “no, we want all the land,” the negotiations collapse because there is no mutual agreement.
But that is not what Krauthammer writes. He writes that if there is no agreement, the ultra-Palestinian position – full return to the ’67 lines – goes into effect, as if that is the default position.
Of course not. Without “mutual agreement,” the status quo remains in place. That is why Israel possesses all the territories now, because no mutual agreement has been reached. According to Krauthammer’s formulation, the entire West Bank and East Jerusalem would be Palestinian by now.
This point applies to every single issue dividing the two sides… If either side is unhappy with what the other side insists on, it walks out and the status quo obtains. Nothing can be imposed on Israel unless one believes that Israeli negotiators will sell out their own country.
Is Krauthammer wrong, or does he misunderstand things, or is he as dumb as a rock, or is he lying, or is playing those Clinton word games? Time’s Joe Klein settles for calling Krauthammer “poisonously disingenuous” and a “devious propagandist” and “quite the scoundrel in this case.” That’ll do. You don’t have to call him a liar:
There is absolutely zero – I repeat, zero – chance that Israel would ever agree to a return to 1967 borders without swaps. Indeed, the de facto situation will continue to get worse for the Palestinians, as Israel continues to expand its illegal settlements on Palestinian land. Krauthammer knows this, of course, and is doing something outrageous here: He is reinforcing the lies uttered by a foreign leader about the American President.
Okay, we are talking about lying. And Steve Benen adds this:
Krauthammer’s column is instructive, though, because it highlights just how dishonest the right’s attacks have become. We’ve actually reached the point at which conservatives want to parse the meaning of “mutually agreed” and change it into a phrase that means something entirely different. It should not be necessary to remind the right of this, but if there are negotiations, and a proposal fails to secure mutually agreed support, then the status quo remains in place.
It’s not complicated; it’s just what the words mean. If Krauthammer doesn’t understand this, he really ought to pick up an editor or get out of the column-writing business.
But there’s more to this. It’s complicated. And in Foreign Policy, Michael A. Cohen explain the ins and outs of what was really going on in Blinded by the Right – and that opens with him reminding us of this:
In 2003, Democrats upset about President George W. Bush’s plans to invade Iraq invited French President Jacques Chirac, an opponent of the war, to address a joint meeting of Congress. It was blatant political play, an attempt by the opposition to work with a foreign leader in offering a counterargument to the president’s invasion plans and limit his ability to carry though with his decision to go to war in the Middle East. Chirac was feted across Washington by liberal think tanks and pro-French lobbying groups as American politicians and Democratic activists fell over themselves to be identified with a strong anti-war leader.
You don’t remember that? Of course you don’t. It never happened. On the other hand it did just happen:
The idea that Congress would openly side with a foreign leader against the president of the United States seems too far-fetched to believe. Remarkably, however, something not dissimilar happened in Washington Tuesday, May 24, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to a joint meeting of Congress (a speech interrupted more than 25 times by a rapturous standing ovation). While these types of congressional addresses are rare, this particular event is even a bit more unusual: The speech’s intention – with the full assistance and backing of the Republican leadership in Congress and implicit support of Democrats – was to give Netanyahu a public forum to offer a rebuttal to President Barack Obama’s recent proposals for moving forward with the Arab-Israeli peace process.
And Cohen notes that the New York Times reported here that the invitation was initially requested, by Netanyahu, of the Republican leadership, before the president’s Middle East speech plans had even been formalized. It was “widely interpreted as an attempt to get out in front of Mr. Obama, by presenting an Israeli peace proposal that, while short of what the Palestinians want, would box in the president.”
There was a plan. And Obama’s May 19 speech was scheduled, on purpose, so that the president could “get out ahead” of Netanyahu’s remarks.
And Cohen is a bit taken aback:
It’s one thing for Republicans to oppose the president’s position on Arab-Israeli peace. In the hours after Obama’s Middle East speech, Republican presidential contenders like Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney did just that, arguing that the president had proverbially thrown Israel “under the bus.” (Never mind that Obama simply reiterated long-standing U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli peace process.) They were joined – in a bipartisan manner – by prominent Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in offering pushback on the president’s words.
It is certainly appropriate for members of Congress to disagree with the president’s foreign-policy agenda. But it’s something else altogether to be appearing to work in concert with the leader of another country in trying to put the president on the defensive – and seeking to score a partisan political advantage in the process. By openly siding with Netanyahu against Obama and making Arab-Israeli peace a partisan issue, Republicans in Congress are at serious risk of crossing a dangerous line and in the process undermining U.S. interests in the Middle East.
This is new, but it seems to be part of a pattern:
Last November, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, after a meeting with Netanyahu, suggested that a Republican Congress would serve as a check on the Obama administration when it came to Israel policy (a position he later sought to walk back). In the fall of 2009, Cantor criticized the Obama administration for its rebuke of the Israeli government over the eviction of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Most surprising of all, the attack was lodged from Jerusalem, where Cantor was heading a 25-person GOP delegation – an unusual violation of the unspoken rule that members of Congress should refrain from criticizing the U.S. government while on foreign soil. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee took a similar position this February while traveling in Israel. He called the Obama administration’s opposition to Israeli settlements (a position long held by Democratic and Republican presidents) equivalent to “racism” and “apartheid.”
Don’t listen to our president. Ignore the official US position. The Republican Party is the real government here, and they are the ones who invited you here to speak, and insult and sneer at Obama. And they were the ones who cheered you.
This is well beyond simple lying:
Last week, as Netanyahu lectured Obama at a frosty White House news conference and issued statements on what he “expected to hear” from the president about his commitment to Israeli security, Republican lawmakers barely batted an eye at behavior that by any other foreign leader would spark outrage from their caucus – and instead aimed their attacks at Obama.
This seems at pace with the GOP’s default position on Israel. This February, writing in the pages of National Review, Romney stated that “Israel must now contend with the fact that its principal backer in the world, the United States, is seeking to ingratiate itself with Arab opinion at its expense.” It’s a view that no doubt would have been met with astonishment in Arab capitals, where America’s image remains largely negative.
One can’t help but wonder whether the tail isn’t wagging the dog – after all, is there a reason that the United States shouldn’t seek to ingratiate itself with Arab public opinion? There is an implicit assumption here that no matter what Israel says or does the United States must continue to be blindly supportive – an odd stance for an American politician to take, particularly when Israel’s actions occasionally run counter to larger U.S. interests.
But this kind of had to happen, for political reasons:
Democrats have long relied on Jewish support – both electorally and financially. Republicans, though less reliant on Jewish voters, have successfully made support for Israel a litmus test for Democrats to prove their national security mettle. Moreover, with strong backing for Israel among the party’s conservative base, defending Israeli behavior has become a surefire way for Republicans to politically cater to social conservatives and evangelical voters. In fact, Israel probably enjoys more clear-cut support for its policies among social conservatives than it does among American Jews! (And Netanyahu, in particular, didn’t just fall into this love fest: He has long supported and helped spearhead the alliance between the Israeli right wing and American religious conservatives.)
And any American politician inclined to put public pressure on Israeli leaders is going to get hammered.
But this is going to kill us:
At a critical moment in the political transformation of the Middle East, America’s steadfast and unyielding support for Israel – underwritten by both parties in Congress – risks undermining America’s long-term interests in the region. Last year, Gen. David Petraeus commented in congressional testimony that “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples [in the region].” His statement provoked controversy in Washington. But ask any seasoned Middle East observer and you’d be hard-pressed to find one who disagrees with the general’s assessment. It is not Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya which is the greatest source of anti-American attitudes in the Arab world – it is the continued lack of resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the view of many in the region that the United States has its thumb on the scale in favor of Israel.
Cohen simply argues this is no time for such nonsense:
None of this is to suggest that Washington should turn its back on the Jewish state. But this is also a time when a more evenhanded position on the conflict is desperately needed – particularly as the United States will need to deal with a new government in Cairo that will likely be less supportive of Israel, a wave of unsteady democratic reforms spreading across the Mideast, and a U.N. General Assembly that appears ready to endorse Palestinian statehood this fall.
These events will have serious repercussions not just for Israel but for U.S. policy in the region. Obama at least seems to realize this fact and has – albeit tepidly – challenged a recalcitrant Israel to get serious about peace. Yet Congress seems intent on restraining his leverage, effectively holding U.S. actions hostage to the whims of partisan politics – and in the process working in concert with a foreign leader to do it.
At some point, it raises the legitimate question of who is looking out not for Israel’s interests, but America’s.
Yes, a few little lies about who said what, and about what certain words really, really mean, even if those words did seem pretty clear, can be dangerous, as in end-of-the-world dangerous.
Ah well, it may not matter, as this is one of the reader comments appended to the Cohen item:
As a factual matter, it is pretty clear by now there will never be any real peace agreement:
1) Because the two state solution is foreclosed by forty years of illegal annexations and forced colonization of the West Bank. It is simply infeasible now. Look at a map of the “settlements”. And, it is rejected outright in any meaningful way by the Israeli government.
2) Because the one state solution (unitary democratic and non-sectarian) confronts the issue of an absolute political sovereignty based on race. A “Jewish” state. A master race. This is clearly a racist formulation. The Palestinians from whom the land was stolen, they should not have equal rights? Just why exactly?
3) Because an Apartheid state cannot be sustained. The second class conditions of Palestinians within Israel proper, denied such as building permits or sewer connections, with homes subject to arbitrary demolition for new “settlements” etc., the third class conditions of those in the West Bank, penned in like animals by vast concrete walls, whose vehicles are subject to immediate and non-recourse confiscation if they even drive on the roads, and the fourth class conditions of those unfortunates in the Gaza ghetto, subject to white phosphorous bombing and mass death and devastation as in Operation Cast Lead, all of this just cannot be sustained. To any but a Zionist, this is clearly an Apartheid state.
4) Because the expulsion of millions of Palestinians to Jordan at the point of a bayonet (population “transfer” in Zionist speak) is simply not feasible either. No solution there.
5) Because the Palestinian cause and demands for justice, including the same right of return that the Jews maintain, has the full backing of a quarter of all humanity, being the entire Muslim world. Despite their many internal discontents, this is the one thing all agree upon. Greater “strategic depth” is hard to imagine.
6) All the vast military power and all the nuclear weapons of Israel are useless to solve this impasse. The cancer is internal, is political, is demographic, and is growing.
Ergo, there is no solution. Zionism is racism and unending war. Love it, or leave it.
Well, that’s one way to look at it too. And this also is not exactly lying, nor is the truth, exactly. But it’s close enough to the facts, once you remove the hyperbolic anger, so that anyone can see this problem will never be solved, no matter who is lying.