CAP, “Israel-Firsters” and Iran

As many readers will know, recent weeks have seen a concerted neoconservative campaign against the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Media Matters on trumped-up charges of “anti-Semitism”. (Specific targets have included our former colleagues Ali Gharib and Eli Clifton, now at CAP, as well as Media Matters’s M.J. Rosenberg and CAP’s Matt Duss and Zaid Jilani.) Former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block laid out the plan for the campaign in an email to a right-wing listserv, in which he urged the neoconservative journalists on the list to “amplify” charges that Block had provided to Politico‘s Ben Smith.

While the backlash that followed the email revelations cost Block his position at the Truman National Security Project — unsurprisingly, since the email showed the self-professed liberal working behind the scenes with the right to try to discredit two of the most prominent Democratic organizations — a familiar roster of neocon writers and bloggers have taken up Block’s call to go after CAP. Thankfully, these transparent attempts to police the discourse have been unsuccessful, and have thus far served largely to discredit Block and other supposed liberals aiming to push the Democratic Party in a more hawkish direction. But it’s worth thinking in more depth about the reasons for the attacks, and why they’re happening now.

Most of the controversy has supposedly been about the use of the term “Israel-firster,” and whether the term is inherently anti-Semitic. (For my part, I don’t think that the term is inherently anti-Semitic, and recognize that there are certainly cases where the shoe fits, but I do think that the undeniably unpleasant historical resonance of the term makes it best to avoid, and don’t use it myself for that reason.) However, this debate has been something of a red herring — while Zaid Jilani used the term a couple times on his own Twitter account, for which he’s expressed regret, the other CAP writers never used it at all. Furthermore, Jilani’s tweets never even appeared in the extremely lengthy (and misleading) oppo-research dossier that Block was pushing; they were only brought to light after the campaign was already underway. The real reasons for the attacks, as Robert Wright notes, had little to do with this semantic debate, and everything to do with the substantive policy positions that CAP and Media Matters had staked out — and which Block and his neocon allies were eager to force them to abandon.

Some of these positions, of course, had to do with Israel, and the attackers’ desire to delegitimize any position to the left of the Netanyahu government. (Although once again, the various targets of the smear campaign have never expressed support for anything other than the two-state solution that has been the explicit policy of the last several U.S. presidents.) To my mind, however, an even more important object of the campaign had to do with Iran. The first ten or so items in Block’s dossier had to do with CAP’s attempts to push back against alarmist misinformation about Iran’s nuclear program — the document’s title also made prominent reference to CAP being “anti-reality on Iran” — and it’s this that helps explain why the neocons are devoting so much energy to the campaign right now.

The ten or so months that remain before the U.S. presidential elections are likely to be critical ones for the Iran issue. As the New York Times suggested on Monday, the Obama administration will be attempting to walk a delicate line these coming months, trying to avoid war while simultaneously heading off domestic attacks for being “soft” on Iran. The task will be made far more complicated by Israel; the Netanyahu government has had no compunction about intervening in U.S. domestic politics and will be doing everything it can to force Obama into confrontation prior to the elections. (As Jim has suggested, Israeli actions like the apparent assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists may be intended primarily as provocations to stir up war rather than as serious attempts to set back the Iranian nuclear program.)

In this context we are seeing a concerted push by Netanyahu and his American allies to foreground the Iran issue and to discredit anyone who questions the alarmist tenor of the Iran discussion. Resemblances to the run-up to the Iraq war are not coincidental; in 2002-3, largely the same cast of characters was successful in consigning all war skeptics to the fringes. The Democratic party establishment, needless to say, did not acquit itself well in the Iraq debate; mainstream liberals by and large failed to question the tendentious premises and alarmist conclusions pushed by the Bush administration and its allies.

Has the party establishment learned any lessons from the Iraq debacle? That, in large part, is what the current campaign against CAP is about. It is designed to declaw any skepticism about war with Iran from mainstream liberal groups, and to turn opposition to war into a phenomenon of the left- and right-wing “fringes”. The blueprint is much the same as it was in 2002.

Will the campaign work? So far, it hasn’t appeared to. But in any case, it is the Iran issue, and not the trumped-up controversy about “Israel-firsters,” that is the ball we should be keeping our eyes on.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. If you are from the U.S. and you put the needs of israel over the needs of your own country, you’re an “israel firster”. That’s not derogatory, it’s a description.

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