National Security Advisor Jim Jones's speech to a top Middle East think thank last week has been overshadowed somewhat by a brewing controversy over a joke he told at the outset. But within the speech, Jones made big news on the foreign-policy front.
UPDATE, 1:35 p.m.: Jones has just issued the following statement:
“I wish that I had not made this off the cuff joke at the top of my remarks, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by it. It also distracted from the larger message I carried that day: that the United States commitment to Israel’s security is sacrosanct.”
Jones is getting a lot of criticism in the conservative blogosphere for starting off his talk with a two-minute joke about a beleaguered Taliban soldier who stumbles upon a Jewish shop in Afghanistan pleading for water. Here's the exact wording of the now-infamous joke:
In order to set the stage for my remarks I'd just like to tell you a story that I think is true. It happened recently in southern Afghanistan. A member of the Taliban was separated from his fighting party and wandered around for a few days in the desert, lost, out of food, no water. And he looked on the horizon and he saw what looked like a little shack and he walked towards that shack. And as he got to it, it turned out it was a little store own by a Jewish merchant. And the Taliban warrior went up to him and said, "I need water, give me some water." And the merchant said, "I'm sorry, I don't have any water but would you like a tie. We have a nice sale of ties today."
Whereupon the Taliban erupted into a stream of language that I can't repeat, about Israel, about Jewish people, about the man himself, about his family, and just said, "I need water, you try to sell me ties, you people don't get it." The merchant stood there until the Taliban was through with his diatribe and said, "Well I'm sorry I don't have water for you and I forgive you for all of the insults you've levied against me, my family, my country. But I will help you out. If you go over that hill and walk about two miles there is a restaurant there and they will have all the water you need." And the Taliban, instead of saying thanks, still muttering under his breath, disappears over the hill, only to come back an hour later, and walking up to the merchant says, "You're brother tells me a I need a tie to get into the restaurant."
Although the crowd seemed to laugh heartily, Jones has been heavily criticized by conservative bloggers and some Jewish community leaders, such as the Anti-Defamation League's Abe Foxman, who told ABC News the joke was "inappropriate" and "stereotypic."
"Some people believe they need to start a speech with a joke; this was about the worst kind of joke the head of the National Security Council could have told," Foxman reportedly said.
Jones is already viewed in some pro-Israel circles as too tough on the Jewish state, dating back to his time as George W. Bush's security coordinator for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He's also reportedly been advocating that President Obama put forward his own peace plan, a move the Israelis and their closest allies in the United States would fiercely oppose.
But Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), which hosted the event, said that he hasn't gotten any complaints about the joke and called the controversy a "real tempest in a teapot."
"This joke stuff is beneath everybody to be focusing on when there are important issues to be focused on," Satloff told The Cable. "I was the host of the event and nobody registered that sort of complaint to me. There was no shock, no offense."
He defended WINEP's decision to post the video of the speech without the joke included, saying that such videos are edited all the time to pare it down only to prepared remarks. As Politico's Ben Smith pointed out Sunday, the White House's official transcript of the speech also failed to include the joke.
Jones did make news in discussing the Obama administration's National Security Strategy, which is expected to come out in the next few weeks. He laid out the four pillars of the new strategy: security, prosperity, values, and international order.
That's quite different from Bush's 2006 NSS, which named two key pillars: "promoting freedom, justice, and human dignity," and "confronting the challenges of our time by leading a growing community of democracies."
Satloff said the speech also included, "the most comprehensive bill of indictment on Iran that I've seen any senior official state," as well as some language that was a signal of the administration's new willingness to put pressure on Arab and Palestinian leaders to begin serious negotiations with Israel.
We also continue to call on all sides to avoid provocative actions, including Israeli actions in East Jerusalem and Palestinian incitement that fuel suspicion rather than trust... So it is time to begin those negotiations and to put an end to excuses. It is time for all leaders in the region-Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab-to support efforts for peace.
"In any sense they are asking Israel to do something, they want it to be closely interwoven with things they are asking of the Palestinians," Satloff said. "The language has changed on that and in this speech Jones has rolled out the new language."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.