FDD’s Cliff May Misses the Irony

by Jim Lobe

“’Creating facts on the ground’ means changing reality through actions rather than diplomacy.”

That opening line in a Washington Times op-ed, by the long-time president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), Clifford May, gave me a classic double take when I read it last week.

According to Wikipedia, the origin of the phrase “facts on the ground” lies with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “where it was used to refer to Israeli settlements built in the occupied West Bank, which were intended to establish permanent Israeli footholds in Palestinian territory.” That’s ordinarily the context in which the phrase is used. In fact, Wikipedia says the phrase is “a calque of the Hebrew term ‘Uvdot Ba’Shetach’” A calque is a word-for-word translation.

But that’s not what May was referring to in his op-ed, which made it clear that he strongly disapproved of “changing reality through actions rather than diplomacy,” aka “creating facts on the ground.”

That’s because he wasn’t referring to the Jewish settlement movement in West Bank (and East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights). May was instead referring to …China and specifically its recent efforts to build and build up islands across the South China Sea.

What makes this real estate so valuable? Location, location, location. The South China Sea is home to some of the world’s busiest and most strategic shipping lanes, a rich fishing area, and possibly large undersea oil and natural gas reserves. China apparently intends to assert its sovereignty and control over all this [area]—and maybe over the airspace above as well.

May went on to cite with approval Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s recent characterization of the Chinese actions as “’out of step’ with international norms.” May himself suggested that Chinese actions violated “international maritime law,” which “[t]he US Navy has the muscle to enforce.”

Of course, May was citing the Chinese construction activity to push the larger Republican—remember, he was once a spokesman for the Republican National Committee—and Likudist narrative that the Obama administration is spineless in dealing with challenges to U.S. regional (read Middle East) and global hegemony.

(Indeed, May went on to argue that if China gets away with defying U.S. demands to halt the island construction, “precedents will be set” that “Iran’s rulers” could use to assert their territorial claims over the Strait of Hormuz and beyond.)

But, the question that goes begging in the op-ed is: how are China’s actions in the South China Sea different from Israel’s actions in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights?

True, China may “intend” at some future date to assert its sovereignty and control over most of the South China Sea in ways that could, potentially, challenge or even violate “international norms” and “international maritime law.” But Israel has not only actually annexed East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights (which takes care of the sovereignty issue), it also continues to exercise de facto “control” over the West Bank and Gaza, including their “borders” and, as May called it, the “air space above.” And, of course, its settlements in the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem continue to constitute actual violations of international law, not least the Fourth Geneva Convention, according to numerous UN resolutions, the International Court of Justice, all but a tiny handful of international legal experts, and every government except Israel’s. (The U.S. has never revoked a 1979 State Department legal opinion that found the creation of Israeli settlements in occupied territories “inconsistent with international law. Wikipedia actually has quite an exhaustive discussion of the settlements’ legal status.)

So you may indeed strongly object to China’s “changing reality through actions rather than diplomacy,” but if you’re going to use a phrase as evocative of Israel’s illegal actions as “creating facts on the ground,” particularly when your organization’s entire raison d’être consists of defending Israel and its actions, shouldn’t you feel somewhat obliged to try to distinguish between the two situations? Are you so lacking in self-consciousness, so oblivious to irony? Help me out here, Cliff.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. Where Conceit & Power rule , reason is the big loser, or, as the Spanish painter Francisco Goya recorded in his 1799 etching (The Sleep of Reason), when reason sleeps monsters emerge to rule.

    And when monsters emerge men’s ability to make themselves better than the animals turn into verbal lynching, barbarism and moralisation of their abominable crimes, be it in China, America, Russia, Israel or elsewhere.

    As our history on this planet shows we have not woken up yet, not since Goya’s work, million of us are still enjoying our ‘sleep of reason’!

  2. The word “international norms” and “international laws” no longer seem to have clear meanings since they have so often been arbitrarily applied to safeguard superpowers’ interests; and it is not just the case of one or two American Officials and media; the cliche, pot calling the kettle black, has so much become characteristic of so many American journalists, the State Department and their ‘experts’, especially those writing on Iran, that one wonders whether ordinary Americans also suffer from this symptom.

    For instance yesterday in the Journal Sentinel, Craig Gilbert had written about the American hostages who had spent 444 days in captivity in Iran, after 4 November 1979: ‘Compensation finally near for Hermening, other Iran Hostages’. As with the other similar reports and articles demanding compensation for the hostages, and the general public/readers’ comments, I have never seen any American hinting at the Iranian victims of decades of the American aggression, even after the Foreign Policy’s disclosure of 26 August 2013 that CIA files prove America helped Saddam carry out chemical weapons attack on Iran – including Sarin, a lethal nerve agent that caused death of 10s of 100s of Iranian soldiers, and still there are some of the victims dying a slow death in Iran. To this date no American Institution has called for compensation for those young victims, or for 1000s disappeared by the Shah’s brutal secret police, trained and equipped by the CIA. No American has spoken for the suffering of millions who were hostage of the Shah’s brutal police state for almost three decades, or for 100s who died during the CIA military coup in Tehran in August 1953, or for countless Iranians who have died as a result of years of the American sanctions, many young cancer patients!

    This is not just the State Department attitude or the American main stream media; this mentality seems to have become an integral part of the American psyche, in other words America is not just a ‘capitalist’ but also a ‘racist’ institution that has no regards for other human beings, yet claims to uphold the human rights and speak for justice, freedom and man’s integrity. Amazing that so much have been said in the American media about the American hostages but not a word about 100s of 1000s of the Iranian victims and their ‘grievances’! So how can Iranians have a genuine friendship, with mutual respect and dialogue with Americans when the majority of Americans continue to uphold that cliche in the name of ‘international’ law/behavior/norms and bluntly undermine the suffering of others!?

  3. Correction: …. lethal nerve agent that caused death of 10s of 1000s of Iranian soldiers

  4. Mr Lobe How is it possible for Israel to occupy it’s own land?”The West Bank” as you term it was part of Mandatory Palestine which was created as a national home for the Jews, endorsed by the San Remo agreements 1922, The League of Nations and the United Nations. Jordan attacked Israel in 1948, and illegally held this “West Bank” until 1967 when it again attacked Israel and lost it to Israel. At no time was there ever a Palestinian State.
    Excepting for the period between 1948 and 1967, for thousands of years there has been a single unified Jerusalem.
    Had Israel listened to the world today ISIS would be sun bathing (or beheading) on the shores
    of the Sea of Galilee.
    No one is stopping indigenous Arabs living in Israel from emigrating. No Palestinian state will ever be established in Israel no matter what you and the rest of the anti-Semitic world thinks.
    Any territory Israel has it gained through self defense, and is not going to give it to the Arabs.

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