The Problem with the Obama Campaign’s ‘AttackWatch’ Website

Sep 14, 2011 5:13pm

Yesterday, ABC News’ Devin Dwyer reported on the Obama campaign’s “Attack Watch,” a present-day incarnation of his 2008 campaign’s “Fight the Smears” website. 

ABC News has fought smears against any number of politicians, including those falsehoods spread to drum up opposition to Mr. Obama for various reasons — racist, ideological, political, or whatever. There was the madrassa junk. The birth certificate canard.  The Obama-wants-to-indoctrinate-your-children silliness. And on and on.

That said, political campaigns do not generally provide reliable anchors at the Fact Check desk. And in one of its first postings, the “Attack Watch” website shows why.

The category: “Israel and Middle East Falsehoods.” 

The attackers: “Mitt Romney alleged that President Obama has ‘thrown Israel under the bus’…Rick Perry accused the President of ‘thumbing his nose at traditional allies like Israel.’”

The Obama campaign assertion: “President Obama is a friend to Israel, despite unfounded claims to the contrary.”

There are certainly those in the pro-Israel community who agree with Romney and Perry. (And, yes, those who disagree.)

President Obama has publicly broken with the current prime minister of Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, over a narrow set of issues. And Romney and Perry were using raw campaign rhetoric to criticize these tensions that have emerged. 

What they claimed is subjective. They disagree with how President Obama has dealt with Israel, and I don’t doubt that they would have handled relations at least somewhat differently, probably more like President George W. Bush.

Better? Worse? That’s for others to decide.

When it comes to U.S.-Israel relations, it’s all really a matter of nuance. Look at the context. No American president in recent memory has been remotely “anti-Israel” in any real sense while in office.

A good precedent might be President George H.W. Bush, whom in 1992 the Jerusalem Post referred to as having an “anti-Israel image.”

Why?

Policy-wise: Because he had attempted to link $10 billion loan guarantees to Israel to an agreement to stop building settlements in Palestinian territories. Diplomacy-wise, the elder Bush complained about the strength of the pro-Israel lobby, publicly stated that the U.S. gives “Israel the equivalent of $1,000 for every Israeli citizen.” And of course Bush adviser James Baker, was reported to have said “F— the Jews” since they “didn’t vote for us anyway.” (He denied having said it.) Bush Sr. found himself not only labeled “anti-Israel” but “anti-semitic.”

Obama has done nothing even remotely like what Bush Sr. did, but the larger point is that as a matter of policy and diplomacy, judged as a whole, the U.S. government during the Bush Sr. Administration was still very supportive of Israel. It’s all a matter of degree and gradation. And it’s also a matter of who’s ruling Israel at any given moment. Netanyahu is essentially an Israeli version of a Republican; of course there are going to be tensions. President Obama can have a problem with Netanyahu and Israeli government policies and not have a problem with Israel.

But as to Romney and Perry’s criticisms: some people are always going to assert that unless an American president responds positively to every initiative of an Israeli prime minister, he’s not pro-Israel.

So is what Perry and Romney said a smear? Or an opinion? I don’t see how it can be considered a “smear.”

Some Democrats objected to the president’s remarks about Israel’s 1967 borders. Were they smearing the president? Netanyahu’s office took issue with the president’s remarks.  Were they smearing him?

What’s odder still is how the Obama campaign’s “Attack Watch” disputes these “smears.”

The website quotes Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak saying he “can hardly remember a better period of support” and President of Israel Shimon Peres calling President Obama “a friend of the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” saying “I don’t have any doubt about it.”

Right, of course allies are going to praise the president and extol the relationship. That’s what allies do. And neither Romney nor Perry were saying the president hates Israel or doesn’t consider the Jewish state an ally – they were criticizing how the president has handled some diplomacy with Israel.

Odder still, the website’s citation of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates testifying “that more has been done to improve the U.S.-Israel security relationship under President Obama than at any time in his 45-year career.”

Earlier this month, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported that, “In a meeting of the National Security Council Principals Committee held not long before his retirement this summer, Gates coldly laid out the many steps the administration has taken to guarantee Israel’s security — access to top- quality weapons, assistance developing missile-defense systems, high-level intelligence sharing — and then stated bluntly that the U.S. has received nothing in return, particularly with regard to the peace process. Senior administration officials told me that Gates argued to the president directly that Netanyahu is not only ungrateful, but also endangering his country by refusing to grapple with Israel’s growing isolation and with the demographic challenges it faces if it keeps control of the West Bank. According to these sources, Gates’s analysis met with no resistance from other members of the committee.”

The “Attack Watch”-er at the Obama campaign isn’t seeking to understand the complicated Obama-Netanyahu relationship, or the disagreements Romney and Perry might have not only with Obama but with Gates.

He or she didn’t seem to be elucidating. (As in, for instance, what is the Obama administration argument: most American Jews think Israel needs to end the dispute with the Palestinians, the demographics are not in Israel’s favor, the president thinks the most pro-Israel thing he can do is to push Netanyahu back to the negotiating table.)

In short, the “Attack Watch”-er wasn’t trying to stop smears, he or she was seeking to stop criticism. The quality of the criticism may be another matter entirely.

(This is not a new problem for the Obama Smear Squad, they have a tendency towards over-reach. See HERE from April 2008.)

-Jake Tapper

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