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Who's Watching the Watchers?

As the drumbeat for a preemptive war against Iraq grows louder, neo-conservative think tanks and their fellow travelers have deputized themselves to police what may be said about the Middle East. Through defamation and innuendo, they hope to undermine the legitimacy of those who question if a war with Iraq is prudent, necessary, and morally justified. Universities, which thrive on lively debate and diversity of opinion, have been especially targeted for supervision.

In March, former Secretary of Education and Drug Czar William Bennett, who poses as the Martha Stewart of public morality, launched Americans for Victory over Terrorism. AVOT, a project of Empower America, aims to "take to task those who blame America first and who do not understand - or who are unwilling to defend - our fundamental principles." On March 10 Bennett published a full page open letter as an ad in the New York Times describing the external and internal threats to the United States. The external threat comprises "radical Islamists and others." The internal threat consists of "those who are attempting to use this opportunity to promulgate their agenda of 'blame America first.'"

Who are those sinister internal enemies? According to AVOT they include former President Jimmy Carter because he criticized George Bush's "axis of evil" concept as "overly simplistic" and "counter-productive". Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Cleveland) makes the list for accusing President Bush of "canceling in effect the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eight Amendments" to the Constitution and calling the war on terrorism "the patriot games, the lying games, the war games of an unelected president." Others AVOT deems dangerous threats include Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D- Los Angeles), Robert Kuttner, editor of American Prospect, and Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's Magazine.

Another effort to police dissent is focused on those who teach Middle East studies on college campuses. Middle East Forum, a think tank run by Daniel Pipes and supportive of the Israeli right wing, has established a Campus Watch website. After failing in his own pursuit of an academic career, Pipes has evidently decided to take revenge on the scholarly community that rejected him.

Campus Watch seeks to "monitor and gather information on professors who fan the flames of disinformation, incitement, and ignorance." Campus Watch does not care to ask whether scholars who study the Middle East might actually know something that would lead them to think that the world is not simply divided between the forces of good (us) and the forces of evil (them). Instead, it has compiled dossiers on professors and universities that do not meet its standard of uncritical support for the policies of George Bush and Ariel Sharon.

Campus Watch alleges that Middle East scholars "seem generally to dislike their own country and think even less of American allies abroad. They portray U.S. policy in an unfriendly light and disparage allies." Apparently Campus Watch is able to penetrate the psyches of scholars whose opinions it does not sanction. Some Americans - Thomas Jefferson, for example - naively believed that dissent and debate are an integral part of the democratic process and essential to the formation of educated citizens. Campus watch apparently believes this tedious process allows too much room for unapproved thinking to emerge.

Campus Watch notes that "Middle East studies in the United States has become the preserve of Middle Eastern Arabs, who have brought their views with them. Membership in the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the main scholarly association, is now 50 percent of Middle Eastern origin." Some Americans have foolishly believed that all U.S. citizens have equal rights regardless of their country of origin and that pointing to peoples' country of origin to discredit them is a form of racism. This too, is outmoded thinking according to Campus Watch. But imagine the uproar that would be created by the suggestion that because Daniel Pipes is Jewish he may be more loyal to Israel than to the United States.

The activities of AVOT and Campus Watch recall the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy, when Hollywood actors and writers, trade union leaders, liberal politicians, and university faculty members were branded as un-American communist sympathizers. McCarthy and his followers succeeded in narrowing the range of American political debate and cultural expression and depriving many innocent people of their careers and livelihoods. Tenured faculty members do not generally risk losing their jobs. But graduate students and untenured faculty are likely to feel intimidated, especially if university administrations do not firmly resist pressures from the likes of Campus Watch.

The day before the Campus Watch web site went up, Harvard University President Lawrence Summers addressed a student convocation and equated criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism. He was responding to a call by 600 Harvard and MIT faculty, staff, and students to divest university funds from companies that do business in Israel as a protest against Israel's continuing occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Similar efforts have been launched at some forty campuses. Given Harvard's leading status in American academia, Summers's sloppy thinking and smear tactics are a very bad omen.

By contrast, the administration of the University of North Carolina fully supported the faculty members who organized a reading program proposed for all incoming freshmen. The new students were to read and discuss a translation and interpretation of the early verses of the Qur'an, Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations by Haverford Professor Michael Sells. That decision was assailed by a Christian right group as a violation of separation of church and state. Daniel Pipes jumped on the bandwagon, assailing the university for obscuring the violent character of Islam. It became one of the first institutions featured on Campus Watch. Nonetheless, the reading and discussion program went forward.

These efforts to stifle public debate about U.S. Middle East policy and criticism of Israel are being promoted by a network of neo-conservative true believers with strong links to the Israeli far right. They are enthusiastic supporters of the Bush administration's hands off approach to Ariel Sharon's suppression of the Palestinian uprising and aggressive proponents of a preemptive U.S. strike against Iraq.

AVOT is funded primarily by Lawrence Kadish, chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition. He has long tried to build links between the Republican Party and American Jews. AVOT's senior advisors include former CIA director James Woolsey and Reagan-era Pentagon official Frank Gaffney. Woolsey is also on the board of the Jewish Institute for National Security, an ultra-hawkish pro-Israel group, as were Vice President Dick Cheney, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton, and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith before they assumed their current positions. Gaffney heads the Center for Security Policy, which is closely linked to the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).

Richard Perle, another member of the JINSA board and one of the strongest proponents of a preemptive war against Iraq, is chair of the Defense Policy Board, which advises the Pentagon. Soon after the September 11 attacks the Defense Policy Board convened a two-day seminar. The consensus of those attending was that removing Saddam Hussein from power should be an objective in the U.S. war on terrorism despite the lack of any evidence linking Iraq to the attacks or to al-Qaeda.

The Defense Policy Board then sent James Woolsey to London to gather evidence linking Iraq to the terrorist attacks. He announced that a member of al-Qaeda met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague. Evidence that the meeting occurred or that it had anything to do with the September 11 attack is questionable.
On September 20 Perle, Gaffney, Bennett, and several other Defense Policy Board members sent an open letter to President Bush. "Even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the [September 11] attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq," they wrote. "Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism."

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the most influential pro-Israel think tank in Washington, is linked to both the Iraq war hawks and the attack on Middle East studies. Richard Perle is a member of WINEP's Board of Advisors as was Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a leading advocate for a war on Iraq, before he joined the Bush administration. Daniel Pipes is a WINEP adjunct scholar. Last year WINEP published a lengthy screed by Martin Kramer, former director of the Dayan Center for Middle East Studies at Tel Aviv University, trashing the entire field of Middle East studies: Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America. Campus Watch appears to be inspired by this book. Kramer edits the Middle East Forum's journal, Middle East Quarterly and is a WINEP visiting fellow. Although he is not directly involved in Campus Watch, he has issued a statement supporting its aims.

This cabal of jingoistic war mongers is trying to stifle public debate on the Middle East as our country is considering launching a preemptive attack on Iraq. Does that make them more patriotic than those who think that Israel must actually end its occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, and not simply talk about the possibility of doing so? Are they more zealous defenders of our national security than those who believe that rushing into a war against Iraq without adequate reason could be a disaster for both the peoples of the United States and the Middle East?