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Saint Nick’s Math Problem

New York Times foreign affairs columnist Nicholas D. Kristof doesn’t understand how foreign aid works

Lee Smith
September 20, 2016
(Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for UNICEF)New York Times
Sheryl WuDunn, Nicholas Kristof and Deepak Chopra attend Deepak Chopra co-hosts the premiere of 'Meena' directed by Lucy Liu and The Sibs on June 26, 2014 in New York City.(Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for UNICEF)(Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for UNICEF)New York Times
(Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for UNICEF)New York Times
Sheryl WuDunn, Nicholas Kristof and Deepak Chopra attend Deepak Chopra co-hosts the premiere of 'Meena' directed by Lucy Liu and The Sibs on June 26, 2014 in New York City.(Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for UNICEF)(Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for UNICEF)New York Times

New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof seems to be having trouble with math.

As the United States and Israel signed a memorandum of understanding last week that would grant Israel $3.8 billion annually in military aid from 2018-2028, Kristof objected with a tweet. “At a time when 6 million kids die annually around the world,” the Times columnist opined, “should the U.S. really be announcing its largest aid package … to wealthy Israel?”

What’s weird here is that the Times’ foreign affairs columnist seems not to understand the basic difference between economic assistance and military credits. In fact, “wealthy Israel” doesn’t receive a dime of economic assistance from the United States, and hasn’t since 2007.

But more to his point: The United States does indeed spend much of its economic aid precisely on taking care of starving and diseased children. Most U.S. foreign aid, which makes up less than 1 percent of the annual budget, is spent on health-related issues. In 2014, for instance, the United States spent $5.3 billion on health, $3.1 billion of which was earmarked for HIV/AIDS. Even as it’s clearly in the interest of the United States to fight transmittable diseases, that’s still a pretty generous sum to spend on afflicted foreign nationals.

The large sum that the MOU guarantees to Israel comes from an entirely different category of spending. What Israel gets from America are what is known as military credits, which is money that has to be spent in the United States on American-made weaponry. That is, Israel is the address for an American domestic subsidy that helps float the American defense industry, which helps keep Americans safe at home. Mandating that Israel place orders for items like F-35 fighter planes lowers costs for the Pentagon, and keeps production lines open in California, where Americans work.

A perhaps harsh but hardly inaccurate way to describe the billions that Washington spends on foreign military financing for Israel is as a species of American corporate welfare—which Israel greatly welcomes, because it lowers Israel’s own defense costs while helping Israel maintain its qualitative military edge over foes like Iran. The guys who pay the full sticker price for shiny American military toys are U.S. allies in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, which spends billions of its own money on American planes, tanks, and other costly systems that the United States would likely not otherwise be able to afford to produce. The sticking point is that Congress has often been uneasy about sending those arms to Arab states: Giving military credits to Israel to buy more advanced versions of these same systems helps calm nerves on Capitol Hill, while keeping the order books of defense contractors full.

The new MOU comes with an added twist, though, which makes the principles behind this aid crystal-clear: In the past, Washington allowed Israel to spend 26 percent of the subsidy on its own defense industry, much of that going to modify off-the-rack systems to local uses. But the new deal stipulates that by 2024 Israel will have to spend every penny of American credits in America. In doing so, the Obama administration, for better or worse, has cornered a rising competitor in the defense industry. Sure, Israel wants to sell arms to India, say, but so does the United States—and because the point of the credits is to subsidize American business, no more carve-out.

This can’t be news to Kristof, who doesn’t seem to see any contradiction in his position regarding his anxiety about an ally like Israel getting military credits and his calls for the American banking system to open itself up to a state sponsor of terror, Iran. Instead, he appears to be motivated by his personal concern about the moral standing of recipients of American foreign aid. In a 2011 column criticizing Israel for not making peace, he writes:

Some of my Israeli friends will think I’m unfair and harsh, applying double standards by focusing on Israeli shortcomings while paying less attention to those of other countries in the region. Fair enough: I plead guilty. I apply higher standards to a close American ally like Israel that is a huge recipient of American aid.

That link in the article goes to a website detailing the history of aid to Israel, explaining the difference between military grants and economic assistance, and also shows how the latter ended nearly a decade ago.

Still, Kristof’s confusion about how foreign aid works might be less alarming had he showed any talent for higher geopolitical reasoning. For instance, Kristof seems incapable of grasping how the regime in Iran that he’s been shilling for over the past decade is connected to the Syrian conflict, which he lambastes as Obama’s “worst mistake.” The two are not unrelated.


For some time now, Kristof’s enthusiasm for rapprochement with Iran has been one of the major themes of his columns, irrespective of who is in power in Tehran. Kristof has insisted on the good intentions of the Iranian regime from his backing of the “grand bargain” of 2003 for which Kristof blames the Bush White House for “diplomatic mismanagement of the highest order,” to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, for which he offered the White House his own personal talking points to help sell the deal. Kristof even pimped for the regime when Ahmadinejad was president, by starring in a documentary about his Iranian “Road Trip” that called to mind the travels of another celebrated Times foreign correspondent who helped obscure the malevolent nature of an imperial regime, Walter Duranty.

The 6 million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis are ghosts whose clothing can now be usefully worn by others.

Why can’t Kristof figure out that the regime he has been so avidly marketing to Times readers for the past decade and a half is also, and at the same time, responsible for the carnage in Aleppo that he so publicly deplores? Presumably, Kristof can read his own newspaper, which has explained in great detail how the Iranians have been backing Assad’s war with every means at their disposal—including tens of thousands of militia fighters funded, organized and led by Iranian officers, as well as additional units contributed by Hezbollah—since 2012.

Lately, Kristof has had a different explanation for what motivates him: the Holocaust.

In his recent columns “Would You Hide a Jew from the Nazis?” and “Anne Frank Today Is a Syrian Girl,” Kristof has presented himself as a kind of new Elie Wiesel, speaking from the depths of the greatest crime in modern Western history to address contemporary issues, including the ongoing carnage in Syria. In these pieces, and on Twitter, Kristof brandishes the Holocaust as proof of the righteousness of his causes, and as a shield against his own moral acquiescence in the crimes he deplores, in a way that would make even the most Holocaust-obsessed American Jewish right-winger—a type with which Kristof would presumably deny even the most passing affinity—recoil. For these efforts, he will be given the Jan Karski Award this November.

The point isn’t that little Syrian girls don’t also deserve to be protected from their hunters—or frankly from people like Kristof, who in effect are the ones clamoring for their killers to be given the resources to buy more bombs. Nor is it the case that the Holocaust can never be relevant to contemporary events, even if the singular horror of that tragedy means that the metaphor should be deployed with great caution. Historians, philosophers, and even New York Times columnists can and should debate the ways in which the lessons of the Holocaust can and can’t properly be applied to the genocide of the Cambodians under Pol Pot, the massacre of Muslims by Serbs at Srebrenica, the politically motivated mass killings of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda, or the repeated threats of nuclear annihilation leveled by the Iranian regime against Israel. The way that the United States has engaged for five years in rancid double-speak to justify its own deliberate inaction while Bashar al-Assad and Iran have helped murder half a million innocents in Syria should rightly seem familiar to any student of the Holocaust.

Rather, the issue is that Kristof has taken someone else’s historical tragedy, and erased the actual victims—in order to substitute his own preferred victims in their place. That’s the point of the randomly chosen figure he seems to have pulled out of thin air—6 million. The “6 million kids” who “die annually around the world” from hunger are important to Kristof, because they allow him to deploy a Holocaust metaphor on his own terms, for his own purposes, and help cover the glaring contradiction of the views he has urged upon readers of the Times. The 6 million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis are ghosts whose clothing can now be usefully worn by others. The same goes for their children and grandchildren, among them the six million Jews of “wealthy Israel,” whose own safety and well-being merit a unique contempt, supported by facile sleight-of-hand reasoning, from Nicholas Kristof.


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