Between the Lines: The 'expert reassurance' of Nicholas Kristof

Perhaps he should ponder the possible consequences when his expertise proves wrong.

Nicholas Kristof 88 (photo credit: )
Nicholas Kristof 88
(photo credit: )
New York Times foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman once described his job as that of "a tourist with an attitude." But even Friedman is outdone in frequent-flyer mileage - and attitude - by his globe-trotting op-ed page colleague Nicholas Kristof, who is said to have visited 140 nations in the course of his work. Kristof has done some valuable advocacy the past few years, especially in drawing attention to the horrors of Darfur. Sometimes, though, his writing, even on worthy issues, is undercut by excessive showboating - such as the time he "bought" two young Cambodian prostitutes to use as the peg for several columns decrying the Asian sex-slave trade. Kristof doesn't write often on Israel, and has no particular expertise or experience in this region. The Far East is more his bailiwick. But that doesn't deter him from occasionally dropping by here and penning the odd piece, usually dedicated, for the most part, to berating Israel's policy toward the Palestinians, and laying on it most of the blame for failure to reach a peace agreement with the Arabs. Though Kristof's views on these matters are in broad outline no different from the general editorial outlook of the Times, even those who in principle agree with some of his points - including myself - find his pieces on the subject irritating and unhelpful. That's because he brings to these issues none of the nuance, knowledge or sense of context found, for example, in Friedman's writing. An all too typical example was Kristof's July 24 column, "Tough love for Israel?" - a response of sorts to earlier criticism of his articles dealing with the situation here. It's filled with statements that are problematic and, to a degree, inaccurate, if not factually, then in terms of their general description. An example of the former: "True, Jews have deep ties to Hebron, just as Christians do to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but none of these bonds confer any right to live in these places or even visit them." You certainly don't have to be a supporter of the current Jewish settlement in Hebron to find that a very tendentious statement, especially from someone who doesn't seem to believe it should then equally apply to Muslims and Jerusalem. Then there's this: "The barrier and checkpoints have reduced terrorism. But as presently implemented, they - and the settlements - also reduce the prospect of a long-term peace agreement." That's an arguable contention; not so, though, is the point that nothing reduces that prospect more than terrorism itself, so Kristof undercuts his own contentions by conflating security measures with settlement-building. I could go on and on, but this particular piece has already been dissected and disputed in Commentary, in The New Republic, by CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), and even elsewhere in this newspaper. It hardly seems worth piling it on even more, especially as Kristof's is not a particularly notable journalistic voice when it comes to the Israeli-Arab conflict. What certainly cannot be passed over lightly, however, is the one statement in "Tough love for Israel?" that I found the most objectionable: "Particularly at a time when Israel seems to be contemplating military strikes on Iranian nuclear sites, the United States would be a better friend if it said: 'That's crazy.'" Really? Why is that? More specifically, why is an idea that what admittedly could be the wrong move to make at this stage, not just a mistake on Israel's part but outright "crazy"? Kristof has argued elsewhere that "Iran's leaders are probably praying for such a strike; it may be the only way that they can stay in power for more than another decade." How does he know that? "I've never been in a country where the government is so unpopular as in Iran, with the possible exception of Burma. The government is so corrupt, tyrannical and incompetent that it will eventually collapse - unless we attack its nuclear sites and trigger a nationalistic surge of support for the regime." Never mind the fact that the Burmese junta has somehow managed to hang on for 46 years. In the meantime, while the rest of the world fails to pass the kind of tough economic sanctions that would really hurt Teheran, should Israel be expected to simply sit tight and wait around for its radical Islamic regime to "eventually collapse," when it's led by a president who talks about this nation being wiped off the map, and is getting ever closer to obtaining the means to make that possible? Even Kristof admits: "Granted, expert reassurances are easier to accept if you live in New York than in Tel Aviv, and the consequences of being wrong would be horrific." Whew! I guess those consequences indeed would be pretty horrific for New Yorkers like Kristof - but, well, I guess he can live with it. Unfortunately, we won't be able to. More troubling is Kristof's contention he is offering "expert reassurances" in this matter. LET'S TALK about his expertise, and its consequences, on another subject: the wave of anthrax-by-mail attacks that shook the US in 2001. The following year, Kristof wrote a series of columns pointing the finger at a military germ-warfare researcher named Steven Hatfill as the prime suspect, citing leaks from the FBI investigation. That publicity apparently made Hatfill's life a living hell; he subsequently sued the Times and its columnist, charging that: "It was inconsequential to defendant Kristof whether it turned out that his designated culprit was guilty or innocent, how reckless his allegations and insinuations were, or how injurious they were to his victim. What was at issue, in defendant Kristof's view, was to help 'light a fire' under the federal investigators so that they might prosecute their investigation more aggressively." Three weeks ago, a federal court finally dismissed that suit, largely on the "absence of malice" grounds that make successfully suing journalists for libel in American jurisprudence extremely difficult. A month earlier, though, the US government agreed to pay Hatfill a settlement of $4.6 million, after it became clear that a far more legitimate suspect had emerged and was soon to be charged for the anthrax attacks. That suspect, another bio-researcher named Bruce Ivins, committed suicide last week. In reporting that news, The New York Times, added of its own star columnist: "Mr. Kristof, who is on vacation and out of cell-phone range, could not be reached for comment." No doubt Nicholas Kristof will eventually find the time - and proper satellite connection - to make a comment. Perhaps first he should give some thought to pondering the possible "horrific" consequences when his expertise proves wrong - be it in the life of one individual or, when it comes to the Iranian nuclear threat against Israel, the lives of some seven million more. [email protected]