The Cato Institute’s Belated, Squishy Stance on the Latest Middle East Crisis

  • October 25, 2023
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The alarming events taking place in the Middle East are growing worse and have more than a small potential to entangle the United States in another foreign war. Hamas’s well-coordinated, surprise attack on Israel from Gaza clearly blindsided Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. However, Israel is now responding with overwhelming force—as it has to previous, smaller-scale attacks over the decades. The bombing of civilian neighborhoods in Gaza, along with an utterly impractical order to evacuate the 1 million people living in the northern portion of the territory within little more than a day is now threatening to greatly eclipse the suffering that Hamas forces have inflicted.

Worse, the Biden administration already is making moves that could trigger a wider, regional war. The United States has dispatched an aircraft carrier battle group to the eastern Mediterranean to show solidarity with Israel, and a second carrier group is now on the way. The usual flock of American hawks are accusing Iran of using Hamas as a proxy to attack Israel, even though the Israeli government itself concedes that it has no evidence that Tehran was the mastermind. Such an inconvenient detail has not deterred dedicated hawks from advocating a U.S. military assault on Iran. Some even insist that the fighting between Israel and the Palestinians cannot stop as long as the current Iranian government remains in power.

One might think that the Cato Institute, as the largest libertarian think tank, would be producing an abundance of op-eds and policy statements that examine the deeper causes of the latest bloody episode in the Middle East. It also should be a natural assumption that libertarian analysts would assess the degree of culpability between Israel and Hamas for the ongoing tragedy in a balanced fashion. One especially would expect the Institute’s foreign policy scholars to be in the forefront of intellectual efforts to counter outspoken hawks and help prevent the United States from attacking Iran—a move that would trigger an even more dangerous regional war.

However, the performance of Cato scholars regarding this crisis has been squishy at best. The first significant statement took the form of an October 14 blog post on the “Cato at Liberty” website, a full week into the war. The author was Justin Logan, the Institute’s director of defense and foreign policy studies. The most surprising and disappointing feature was that it regurgitated many of the biased, pro-Israel myths that one could find in any establishment media outlet. 

Unfortunately, such a perspective appears to gaining strength at Cato on multiple foreign policy issues. Several analysts, most notably Senior Fellow Tom Palmer, have been strident partisans of Ukraine throughout that country’s war with Russia. Logan’s initial comment on Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine not only was a full-throated condemnation of the Kremlin’s aggression, it also endorsed economic sanctions against Russia, with no apparent exceptions. Such a stance was disturbing, since decades of scholarship have shown that sanctions are both ineffectual and cruel. They typically devastate the lives of ordinary people in the targeted country who have little or no ability to influence their government. At the same time, sanctions are notoriously ineffective at compelling the targeted regime to capitulate to Washington’s policy demands. 

Logan’s October 14 blog post exhibited a blatant pro-Israel bias from the outset. He described how he woke up at 5:00 a.m. on October 7 and “saw image after image that turned my stomach. Terrorism, and the targeting of civilians, especially children, cannot be justified. Civilized people across the world were horrified by it.” He added that “Israel has every right to defend itself and, speaking for myself here, it has every right to be in a frothing rage, too.”

His subsequent take on Israel’s military response, which has killed more than 1,000 (and perhaps as many as 3,000 civilians in Gaza, was far more vague and ambivalent. Indeed, he implicitly placed the bulk of the blame for civilian casualties in Gaza on Hamas, not the Israeli military that was conducting air strikes and other assaults. “All civilized people were horrified by the targeting of Israeli men, women, and children by Hamas terrorists, just as they have concerns for the innocent people in Gaza, who are suffering as a result of the war Hamas started.” [Emphasis added.]

The closest Logan comes to admonishing Israel can be found in 2 vague comments. One was an observation that Israel already had dropped more bombs on Gaza than the United States and its allies did in the war against ISIS. The other item stated that “I hope, for Israel’s sake but also for the sake of innocent civilians in Gaza—and, as an American, for the prevention of escalation in the region that would risk U.S. involvement—that Israel makes better decisions than we Americans did in our rage after 9/11.”

What was especially notable was the lack of context about Israel’s longstanding mistreatment of Palestinians. There was not a single word about the systemic human rights abuses in Gaza that have led respected human rights organizations to describe the territory as the “world’s largest open-air prison.” Nor was there a word about the brazen theft of Palestinian land by Israeli governments and settlers on the occupied West Bank over the decades, which Amnesty International condemns as a form of apartheid. .

Such bias and negligence is deeply troubling. It takes very little courage to denounce Hamas for its conduct—especially its capture, abuse, and outright murder of civilian hostages. Establishment policy wonks and journalists already had initiated a tsunami of justifiable criticism about such atrocities. One might hope, though, that a Cato Institute scholar would present a more balanced and worthwhile analysis. 

Cato once had a well-deserved reputation for speaking unpopular truths regarding foreign policy issues. The positions that Institute scholars took with respect to the Persian Gulf War, the Balkan wars, the unjustified U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, NATO’s disastrous air war to oust Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, and Washington’s shameful support of Syrian jihadists against Bashar al-Assad’s government, were all pertinent examples. The behavior in response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a sad departure from that legacy.

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