Defending Jim Lehrer and Nicholas Kristof from Martin Peretz

The editor-in-chief of The New Republic, Martin Peretz, attacked Jim Lehrer and Nicholas Kristof over the weekend for having had anything to do with me.

I’m not important, but I really must come to the defense of Lehrer and Kristof. Peretz blames Jim Lehrer for having me on the Lehrer News Hour on PBS and thus allegedly minting me as a liberal intellectual. And he goes on to accuse the News Hour and PBS more generally of being ideologically biased to the Left.

The News Hour works extremely hard to put on balanced interviews. Every time a person is considered for an interview, it involves a pre-interview, a sort of audition. The producer tries to find out what the guest will say on an issue, and then to find a good counter. On Lehrer, I was put opposite Neoconservatives from the American Enterprise Institute such as Michael Rubin and Reuel Gerecht, or against Iraqi politicians or intellectuals who supported the Bush war. I was never put on as a singular or dominating voice, and so Peretz’s accusation of bias is merely an insult.

Many of the conservatives with which PBS paired me know no Arabic and have no cultural understanding of the Middle East. As for my credentials, I had written my dissertation on trans-national Shiite Islam in the modern period and had two chapters in the dissertation set among Iraqi Shiites. I discovered new primary sources in Arabic for Iraqi history and Shiism in India and Pakistan, and suffered to get them (I was laid low for 6 months by hepatitis at the end of my fieldwork.) I had been among the few Americans to have written Iraqi history before the war (see my book, Sacred Space and Holy War) and was the first to write an academic journal article on the Sadr Movement. I lived in the Muslim world for nearly 10 years, which informed my researches. There are different ways of knowing. Mine is an academic way, and it has its virtues, and it is not strange that this expertise was respected by PBS. Peretz does not really object to me because I lack expertise or am too far left to suit him (it would not take much) but because my analyses and conclusions differ so profoundly from his, especially on Israel/Palestine, that he wants to silence me. But the Lehrer News Hour is not about shutting people up. It is about allowing a free debate among a large range of perspectives. By the way, readers should google my appearances on Lehrer and decide how well those interviews hold up in the light of what we now know.

Interestingly, Peretz doesn’t seem to know what a blog is or to realize that it wasn’t PBS that made me prominent, but “Informed Comment” and my daily commentary and reportage here. And, it generated lots of television, not just the Lehrer News Hour. I have been on ABC Evening News, Nightline, the Today Show, CNN Headline News, Anderson Cooper 360, Wolf Blitzer, John Gibson’s Big Country (yes, on Fox), Keith Olbermann, Ron Reagan, the History Channel, etc., etc. Lehrer has hardly been alone among television journalists in valuing my perspective.

Peretz has smeared Jim Lehrer, indeed, libelled him, along with Ray Suarez, Margaret Warner and Gwen Ifill (all of whom have interviewed me), and must apologize. Now.

Nicholas D. Kristof has more ethics, more humanity and more insight in one of his fingernails than Peretz has in his whole body.

Peretz is transparent that he fears my new book, Engaging the Muslim World, will be influential and he wants to stop you from reading it.

Doesn’t that make you curious to know what is in it that threatens him so much?

Engaging the Muslim World

Cont’d (click below or on “comments”)

Peretz is a prime example of what John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt call the “Israel Lobby” (I prefer the plural). He is rich. He has sharp elbows. He used his riches to insert himself centrally into the national political debate. (Try to get an article critical of Israel published in The New Republic). He helped get over 4,000 young Americans killed in a fruitless Middle East war, which he appears mainly to have backed in order to crush the Palestinians. And he is using his position to marginalize Americans who do not share his extreme form of Zionism. He boasts of ruining careers here for the sake of the Likud Party in Israel. He is wholly unrepresentative of American Jewry, which is diversified as to social class and is mostly liberal and dedicated to social justice, and much of which is anti-war (nearly half of American Jews opposed the Iraq War, when 75% of Americans as a whole supported it).

Peretz single-handedly ruined a great magazine with a century-long tradition of contributing to political debate in the United States. Obviously, it has some great journalists working for it, but he corrupted its editorial line and ousted honorable liberals (getting rid of people is one of his favorite ways of making sure he wins). He has no particular accomplishments to his name except marrying the Singer sewing machine fortune and then using it to buy and disfigure The New Republic. He is famous for having backed the nun-killing far rightwing Contras in Central America in the 1980s, and for being part of a Reaganite wacky far right of cranky rich people, along with Domino’s Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan, who worked tirelessly to make sure Central American peasants remained barefoot and oppressed so that US corporate profits could continue to flow freely from the region.

He also lobbied the W. Bush administration tirelessly to launch a war of aggression on Iraq with no vestige of international law. I noted in Salon recently,

‘ “Martin Peretz, owner of the New Republic, took up the neoconservative mantra on Sept. 5, 2002, writing that “The road to Jerusalem more likely leads through Baghdad than the reverse. Once the Palestinians see that the United States will no longer tolerate their hero Saddam Hussein, depressed though they may be, they may also come finally to grasp that Israel is here to stay and that accommodating to this reality is the one thing that can bring them the generous peace they require.” ‘

How you could get more wrong than that, I’m not sure.

Contrast that to what I was writing before the 2003 invasion of Iraq:

‘ Moreover, the idea that a US military occupation of Iraq will deter as oppose to provoking more attacks on US interests is awfully optimistic. The main problem an organization like al-Qaeda has is to recruit further members and keep current members from melting away in fear. They recruit best when the young men are angriest. What are they angry about? The Israeli dispossession of the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza; the almost daily shooting by the Israeli army of innocent noncombatants; the progressive colonization of Palestinian territory by–let us say–idiosyncratic settlers from Brooklyn (all of this is on t.v. every day over there); the harsh Indian police state erected over the Muslims of Kashmir; the economic stagnation and authoritarian policies of many Middle Eastern governments that are backed by the US; and the poverty and prejudice Muslim immigrants to places like France and Germany experience daily.

I don’t have any idea how to resolve all these grievances; but the young men are very angry about and humiliated by them, and al-Qaeda plays on that anger to seduce them into attacking US interests. A US occupation of Iraq is not going to address the grievances, and is likely to create new bitterness and so help the recruitment drive. If the US really wanted to stop terrorism, it would invade the West Bank and Gaza and liberate the Palestinians to have their own state and self-respect, instead of heading to Baghdad.

Iraq is rugged; tribal forces are still important; and the majority population is Shiite, as is that of neighboring Iran. What will happen if US bombs damage the Shiite shrines, the holiest places for 100 million Shiite Muslims in Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, India, Bahrain? What will happen if there is a riot in a shrine city like Karbala and US marines put it down by killing rioters? Do we want 100 million Shiites angry at us again? (Lately they have calmed down and it is the radical Sunnis that have given us the problems).

What happens if the Iraqi Sunni middle classes lose faith in secular Arab nationalism because the Baath is overthrown, and they turn to al-Qaeda-type Islam, in part out of
resentment at American hegemony over their country? What will happen if we give the Turks too much authority to intervene in Kurdistan, and fighting breaks out between the Turks and the Iraqi Kurds, and if the Iraqi Kurds turn against the US?’

Peretz accuses me of prophesying and wants me to apologize for being wrong. I was not prophesying. I was pointing to the dangers and uncertainties of an Iraq War. And my gut instinct for what the dangers were was perfectly correct, as subsequent events unfortunately demonstrated.

That Iraq is no longer racked by paroxysms of almost cosmic violence, as it was 2006-2007, is a wonderful good thing. But 4 million are still huddling, displaced; millions have been wounded; the economy is a wreck, and in a recent week 60 were killed in car bombings in the center of the capital. It is not paradise. In any case, that social crises subside over the years does not resurrect the dead or heal the wounded or restore fathers to the orphaned. Peretz does not care about actual human beings, though, unless they are just like him– rich and superficial and arrogant and spoiled.

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