October 29, 2019

JOHNS | Correcting the Record on ‘Propaganda Versus Reality’

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Yesterday, Jacob Brown grad, a columnist at The Sun, published a polemical piece bearing the puzzling title “Terrorism: Propaganda Versus Reality.” It took direct aim at a column of mine from some eight months ago, “Reining In Iran’s Brutal Regime,” an attempt to review the nation’s horrific human rights violations and offer policies to challenge its immoral leadership as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. In his column, Brown holds the extraordinary premise that the United States is the real leading state sponsor of terrorism — a declaration so extreme, almost no one but the Iranian Foreign Ministry itself has found the audacity to make it.

Anti-Americanism, unfortunately, often traffics in this kind of rhetoric, feebly attempting to flip the script on foreign policy experts by intentionally conflating difficult policy choices or historical policy mistakes with the sinister efforts by Tehran and others to commit deliberate acts of extreme violence against civilians. Criticizing bad choices can be important — but Brown was wrong to make the indefensible claim that the U.S. lacks “any sense of moral high ground” over the brutal Iranian regime.

Brown begins by discussing the Yemeni Civil War, an ongoing proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia that is having undeniably catastrophic effects on civilians and regional security. What Brown conveniently leaves out in his astonishingly incomplete treatment of the conflict is that it was provoked when Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who speak for only a small minority of Yemenis, staged a violent coup attempt and subsequent civil war in violation of a United Nations ceasefire in 2014. Iran has been the fuel behind this deadly civil war, generously supplying the Houthis with a wide variety of war-making tools and breaking a U.N. Security Council resolution by illegally shipping short-range ballistic missiles to Yemen. These same ballistic missiles have targeted civilians repeatedly in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and fired indiscriminately upon both U.S. Navy and civilian vessels in the Bab el-Mandeb strait.

Contrast that with the U.S.’s humanitarian leadership in the country. The U.S. has spent years calling for a ceasefire and has provided over $721 million in humanitarian aid since 2017 alone. The U.S. military does not have boots on the ground in Yemen — but the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Hezbollah allies do, and are directly coordinating and escalating the conflict.

This Iran-inspired civil war has created one of the most profound humanitarian crises on the planet. Yet somehow, in his lamentations on the conditions in Yemen, Brown managed to forget that this summer’s seven-week suspension of food aid to the country was the sole result of Iran-backed Houthi rebels diverting that aid for their own purposes. It is wrong to overlook the outsized contributions of Tehran and its Houthi proxies in shamelessly maximizing the military brutality and humanitarian misery of the war for strategic benefit.

Despite these flagrant errors, Brown is right to criticize Saudi Arabia for not doing more to prevent civilian casualties as their multinational coalition attempts to restore stability to the country. But the difficult question remains: How would Jacob Brown instead have navigated relations with Saudi Arabia? Would he have unconditionally withdrawn support, handing the internationally recognized government of Yemen over to the even more dangerous Iran-backed Houthis, whose slogan is “God is Great, death to the U.S., death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam”? Or would he, as the Trump administration has done, cut back the already limited support for Saudi air raids and call for negotiations? Withdrawal is certain to inflame the war and further compromise Riyadh’s national security, which is a recipe for exactly the unilateral Saudi action that Brown would seek to end.

Brown then transports us back some 35 years ago to consider the impacts of U.S. support for the anti-communist Contras, which faced down the Soviet-backed Sandinista dictatorship in Nicaragua. It is true that this is and likely should be a thorny issue in American history, but Brown again offers a decidedly anti-American account which intentionally writes out the context. Daniel Ortega and his Sandinistas, who were armed, encouraged and trained by the Soviet Union, orchestrated a violent coup that left thousands dead and subsequently began a bloody campaign to establish a communist dictatorship. To support their goal of ridding Nicaragua of Soviet and Cuban military presence and establishing a democracy, the Contras solicited U.S. assistance, which Congress authorized.

Because of U.S. aid, the Contras’ objective was at least fleetingly accomplished when free and fair elections were held in 1989, and the Soviets and the Cubans were ultimately forced to withdraw. There is no question that this was a brutal war with grave wrongdoing on both sides, and it is right to reflect on some of our errors and excesses in opposing Soviet-backed brutality in Central America. But even the International Court of Justice does not agree with Brown’s assertions. Quite the opposite: Despite ruling that the U.S. should not have been involved, the ICJ still acknowledged that it could find no “basis for concluding that any [acts contrary to general principles of humanitarian law] which may have been committed are imputable to the United States of America as acts of the United States of America.” Hardly a ringing argument for U.S. “state terrorism.”

It is not by some trick of rhetoric or practice that commentators on the left and right have convincingly “[presented] the narrative” that Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism; it can be evidenced solely by the estimated $1 billion Tehran invests in terror every year and the support their military contributes to such operations. With such grievous errors in history and judgment on already cherry-picked cases of U.S. foreign policy, one cannot take seriously Brown’s insistence otherwise. In an imperfect postwar order, the U.S. has proven the world’s most reliable force for democracy, human rights and peace.

Michael Johns, Jr. is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mjohns@cornellsun.com. Athwart History runs every other Wednesday this semester.