From one of my favorite political commentators – the brilliant Bret Stephens
Colin Powell’s Double Standard
The former secretary of state offers a dubious defense of Chuck Hagel and his comments about the ‘Jewish lobby.’
By BRET STEPHENS
Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2013
Colin Powell thinks Chuck Hagel’s use of the term “Jewish lobby” was an innocent mistake, for which he should atone by writing “Israel lobby” 100 times on a blackboard.
“That term slips out from time to time,” the former secretary of state told David Gregory on Sunday’s “Meet the Press.” Mr. Powell also thinks that when Mr. Hagel’s critics “go over the edge and say because Chuck said ‘Jewish lobby,’ he is anti-Semitic, that’s disgraceful. We shouldn’t have that kind of language in our dialogue.”
OK, I get it. An errant slip of the tongue isn’t proof of prejudice. We have all said things the offensiveness of which we perhaps didn’t fully appreciate when we opened our mouth.
Like the time when, according to Bob Woodward, Mr. Powell accused Douglas Feith, one of the highest-ranking Jewish officials in the Bush administration and the son of a Holocaust survivor, of running a “Gestapo office” out of the Pentagon. Mr. Powell later apologized personally to Mr. Feith for what he acknowledged was a “despicable characterization.”
Or the time when, according to George Packer in his book “The Assassins’ Gate,” Mr. Powell leveled another ugly charge at Mr. Feith, this time in his final Oval Office meeting with George W. Bush. “The Defense Department had too much power in shaping foreign policy, [Powell] argued, and when Bush asked for an example, Powell offered not Rumsfeld, the secretary who had mastered him bureaucratically, not Wolfowitz, the point man on Iraq, but the department’s number three official, Douglas Feith, whom Powell called a card-carrying member of the Likud Party.”
Anyway, on this business of hypersensitivity to prejudicial remarks, real or perceived, here is Mr. Powell in the same interview talking about what ails the Republican Party:
“There’s also a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party. What do I mean by that? I mean by that is they still sort of look down on minorities. How can I evidence that? When I see a former governor [Alaska’s Sarah Palin] say that the president is shuckin’ and jivin,’ that’s a racial-era slave term. When I see another former governor [New Hampshire’s John Sununu] say after the president’s first debate when he didn’t do well, he said he was lazy. Now it may not mean anything to most Americans but to those of us who are African-Americans, the second word is shiftless and then there’s a third word that goes along with it.”
So let’s get this straight. Mr. Powell holds it “disgraceful” to allege anti-Semitism of politicians who invidiously use the phrase “the Jewish lobby.” But he has no qualms about accusing Mr. Sununu—along whose side he worked during the George H.W. Bush administration—of all-but whispering the infamous N-word when he called Mr. Obama’s first debate performance “lazy.”
It’s hard to decide whether Mr. Powell is using a double standard hypocritically or inadvertently. I’ll assume the latter, since he seems to have missed the reason why Mr. Hagel’s nomination to be secretary of defense has run into so much opposition.
Consider the following hypothetical sentence: “The African-American lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.” Would this pass Mr. Powell’s smell test?
Or this: “I’m a United States senator, not a Kenyan senator.” Such a statement would be considered as so weird and unwonted that no amount of spinning (let’s say it was uttered in the context of a discussion of U.S. policy toward Africa) would have saved the person making it from immediate disqualification.
Now maybe someone can explain how that’s materially different from Mr. Hagel’s suggestion that “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here” and “I’m a United States senator, not an Israeli senator.”
One of the arguments I’ve come across recently is that there’s nothing unwarranted about using the word “intimidate” and that it’s something all lobbies do. Remarkably, however, a Google search yields zero results for the phrases “the farm lobby intimidates,” “the African-American lobby intimidates,” or “the Hispanic lobby intimidates.” Only the Jewish lobby does that, apparently.
There is also the argument that supporters of Israel really do intimidate politicians on Capitol Hill. The word itself means “to make timid or fearful,” to “frighten,” and “to compel or deter as if by threats.” It would be interesting to see valid evidence that any group commonly associated with the Israel lobby ever employed such Mafia-like tactics. What I’ve seen instead are crackpot allegations, such as the letter I recently received charging that the Jewish lobby was responsible for William Fulbright’s 1974 senatorial defeat in Arkansas. Who knew?
In the meantime, maybe Mr. Powell could show that he’s as sensitive to the whiff of anti-Semitism as he is to the whiff of racism. If George Packer’s description of Mr. Powell’s last meeting with President Bush is inaccurate, he should publicly disavow it. If it’s accurate, he should publicly apologize for it. Nobody questions where Mr. Powell’s loyalties lie. If he has called the loyalties of other patriotic American public servants into question, that would be, to use his word, disgraceful.
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