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The New McCarthyism

Cotton’s slur against NIAC has nothing to do with curbing foreign influence and everything to do with trying to discredit a voice that has pointed out the futility of Cotton’s preferred policy on Iran of nothing but punishment, isolation, and the threat of war.

Analysis | Global Crises

A surge of attempts to silence legitimate and thoughtful foreign policy criticism has reached new depths, impugning the loyalty of those who happen to have policy differences with those doing the impugning. The resulting damage is not just to individual reputations, but also to freedom of speech and to the care and wisdom that should be applied to the formulation of policy.

The Trump administration has set the tone, as it did when briefing members of Congress about the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Many members had problems with what they described as a vague and unconvincing briefing, but what especially angered Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah was that the administration briefers told members they should not debate such matters in public at all.

Also following the Soleimani assassination, Facebook began deleting posts on its Instagram network that questioned the operation (while running paid pro-Trump ads that supported the killing). Facebook justified its actions with an erroneous interpretation of the 1996 law that criminalizes material support to terrorist groups, contending that any posts arguing that it was unwise to assassinate Soleimani could be construed as material support to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (which the Trump administration, in a gross misuse of a law that never was intended to apply to government entities, had designated as a foreign terrorist organization). Thus silenced were voices who would never dream of materially supporting anything connected with the Iranian regime, but who had good reasons to say that the assassination operation was a bad move from the standpoint of U.S. interests.

Facebook’s move is best interpreted as a pusillanimous effort to stay in good graces with the Trump administration while the company is under fire over antitrust, privacy, and other issues. Principles certainly have nothing to do with the move. This is the same Facebook whose boss declared to Congress that he will not delete from his online service many blatant political lies because people in a democracy should be able to “judge for themselves.”

Note the progression these two examples represent. The administration briefers who went to Capitol Hill did not accuse members of anything dishonorable. They just told members to shut up and not openly question practices such as bumping off senior leaders of foreign governments because such discussion might somehow give comfort to an adversary. The Facebook move goes a step further by implying that such policy discussion could materially support, even if inadvertently, an outfit that does terrorism. The next step in this ladder of censorship, which turns it also into a ladder of calumny, is to accuse those being censored of actively working on behalf of an adversary regime.

That is exactly what Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and two other Republican senators, Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Braun of Indiana, have done with a letter calling on the Department of Justice to investigate the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) for possible violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, accusing NIAC of acting on behalf of the Iranian regime. This call is baseless, in addition to trying to make the Justice Department even more of a partisan political weapon than it already has become under William Barr. There is no indication, and the senators provide none, that NIAC works on behalf of the Iranian government or any other foreign government. NIAC’s prime constituency consists of Americans of Iranian ethnicity, and its foreign policy line is one of supporting diplomacy and the peaceful resolution of disputes, all from the perspective of what is best for U.S. interests. People familiar with the organization know this, as reflected in a statement of support from scores of signatories. The senators’ suggestion of working on behalf of the Iranian regime is especially bizarre given that NIAC often has criticized that regime for its human rights abuses, such as during its harsh crackdown on citizens protesting fuel price increases in November.

Cotton’s slur against NIAC has nothing to do with curbing foreign influence and everything to do with trying to discredit a voice that has pointed out the futility of Cotton’s preferred policy on Iran of nothing but punishment, isolation, and the threat of war. That policy, as implemented by the Trump administration, has been a failure on every front.

Cotton is no stranger to irregular moves in support of that dead-end policy. Five years ago, he organized an open letter to the Iranian regime, signed by most Republican senators, that essentially advised the Iranians to distrust or disregard whatever the Obama administration was saying in the then-ongoing negotiation of what would become the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the agreement that restricted Iran’s nuclear program, because Congress or a future Republican president could kill the deal. If the Justice Department or anyone else wants to look for Americans giving what appears to be friendly advice to the Iranian regime while undermining the conduct of U.S. foreign relations in the process, Cotton’s own earlier letter was an excellent example.

Accusations such as the one against NIAC constitute McCarthyism. Like Joseph McCarthy’s original version, today’s version involves falsely labeling loyal American citizens as disloyal. What’s different about this newer incarnation is that the background is not the ambition of a lone demagogue but instead a hyperpartisanship in which many Republicans view Democrats as no better than foreign adversaries. Or even worse than foreign adversaries — consider this comment from an anonymous Republican senator last year when rebuffing suggestions for a conciliatory U.S. move to resolve the impasse with Iran: “Why would we give them anything? They just called the president mentally retarded. They are almost as bad as the Democrats now.”

Efforts to silence rather than rebut opposing views about foreign policy are not entirely new. One of the most familiar examples is the recurrent effort to silence criticism of Israel’s policies by playing the antisemitism card. An irony in view of Cotton’s attack on NIAC is that those following his hardline approach toward Iran are among those quickest to denounce any criticism of undue American deference to Israel as propagating a bigoted “trope” about divided loyalties. This occurs even though some of those displaying such deference are quite open and even passionate about their attachment to that foreign country — most notably casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who has been financially and thus politically one of the biggest influences on U.S. policy toward Israel and has said that “unfortunately” he did his military service in an American uniform rather than an Israeli one. (Adelson also has said the United States should drop a nuclear weapon on Iran.) Cotton recklessly accuses those on the other side of Iran-related policy issues of divided loyalties in the absence of anything remotely like this. Nobody at NIAC expresses regret about having served in the U.S. military rather than the Iranian one.

The new McCarthyism is an affront to the First Amendment of the Constitution. It also is a prescription for bad policies that never get adequately reviewed, discussed, and debated before they are adopted. A major lesson in this regard is the Iraq War, which was launched with no policy process in the executive branch and only cursory consideration, with no hearings, in Congress.

Chief Senate Counsel representing the United States Army and partner at Hale and Dorr, Joseph Welch (left), with United States Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin (right), at the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations' McCarthy-Army hearings, June 9, 1954.
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