Five jokes a national security advisor can safely open a speech with

As you may have read, General Jim Jones, the U.S. National Security Advisor, seeking to turn that Middle Eastern frown upside down, cracked wise at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy the other day. In so doing he showed the kind of sensitivity toward Jews that some have concluded will be sure to have him opening for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Laff Factory in Tehran in no time. Having specifically gone to the think tank to reiterate America's commitment to Israel in no uncertain terms, Jones cannily opened with a joke that turned on the reliably funny topic of Jewish business acumen. 

No wonder they call him the funniest Jim Jones this side of Guyana.

Not surprisingly, the comment offended a few people. We can only imagine that first and foremost among them was America's self-appointed first line of defense against the Israel Lobby, Steve Walt, who we have to assume was outraged that Jones even went to the Institute in the first place -- given what Walt has asserted is the allegedly pro-Israel stance of some of its experts. (Walt is recently on the record as suggesting that the folks who work at the Institute be denied any opportunity to ever work in the U.S. government because of their alleged "conflicts of interest" -- which he twists himself into Mary Lou Retton-worthy contortions to attempt rather unsuccessfully to distinguish from the more inflammatory "dual loyalty" which we all know means "you can't celebrate both Flag Day and Shavuos.")

Actually on the record as being offended was Anti-Defamation League National Director Abe Foxman who called the Jones joke "inappropriate." Personally, I found the joke funny -- what's funnier after all than a story like Jones's about a thirsty Taliban being denied a drink unless he buys a necktie from a Jewish merchant? That's the kind of thing we call a laff riot in Gaza -- where they know something about riots. But other Jews, you know, they're more sensitive than I am about these things -- not because they don't have a sense of humor (think Jerry Seinfeld, George Burns, Grouch Marx, Lloyd Blankfein, half of Chelsea Handler), but because after 5,000 years the same punch lines get a little old.

Fortunately for Jones, Jews aren't as sensitive about these things as other groups. As others have noted, imagine if the joke had turned on the stereotypes of different ethnic groups, African Americans, for example, or gays, or on a clichés about boneheaded military officers. Jones would be enjoying the same kind of career prospects as Michael Richards, considering shifting to a posting in Silvio Berlusconi's cabinet or be left cruising the Pacific Coast Highway with Mel Gibson. (It's a good thing he didn't call Ehud Barak "sugar tits.") Some groups you can't make fun of in America. But Jews, they don't mind a good ribbing from the Obama administration. Ask Bibi Netanyahu.

Since it looks like Jones won't be fired any time soon, however, he's probably going to have to give some more speeches. Given this, it'd probably be a good idea to learn some distinctly non-stereotypical new jokes about Jews with which he can open his speeches. Here are a few ideas:

A Jew walks into a bar. He says, "who's buying?"  When no one else offers, he takes out his credit card and says, "this round's on me."

  • A Jew walks into a bar. A woman approaches him and says, "Wow, you have a beautiful profile. May I buy you a drink?"
  • A Jew walks into a bar.  Suddenly, 10,000 small missiles are launched into the bar from a neighboring community. The Jew smiles and says, "Did somebody ask for a light?"
  • A Jew walks into a bar. He goes and sits at the table at which he and his family have been sitting forever.  Suddenly a Palestinian comes in and says, "I thought that was my table." The Jew says, "Oh, I'm sorry.  My mistake." And he leaves.

Of course, Jones's biggest on-going problem is hardly his lack of a sense of humor. It's that despite his best efforts, he is still dogged by criticism from some of his own colleagues within the administration -- despite periodic efforts at rehabilitating his aloof image -- that he is the disconnected, remote chief of a system that has thus far seemingly favored lengthy (some might say dithering) process over the production of good, clear policies, a process that cuts out key officials, and one that has been too dominated by the circle of pols that are close to the president.   

All of which may, if you believe the buzz, foreshadow yet another joke, perhaps one paraphrasing the Dorothy Parker classic which dates to the Coolidge years. It might -- later this year, say the chattering classes--go like this:  At a cocktail party full of Washington whisperers one says to the other, "I hear Jim Jones just resigned." Says the other: "How can you tell?"

There is, however, an important last irony here ... which is not quite the same thing as humor: There are some people I respect enormously who very resolutely resist the preceding critique of Jones and have been steadfast in their admiration for him. High among this group of Jones supporters? Well, as it happens, the Israelis -- who have no hesitation about offering genuine appreciation for his directness, experience and intelligence. Which is saying something. Because in Washington, when someone ... particularly someone you have been tough with ... is willing to praise you behind your back and in private, that typically means much more than most of the kerfuffles that actually make their way into the news.  (Even if those kerfuffles are so amusing that nearly all including the most circumspect bloggers can't resist them.)

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

Horseshoes, hand grenades, atom bombs … and Palestinian independence?

When I was a kid, I had a dorky friend who had a macho cliché for every occasion. It didn't help his image a bit and it left me with a load of random phraseology floating around in my brain that, if uttered, is guaranteed to make you sound like an awkward, overweight thirteen year-old with your pants pulled up to your incipient man-boobs

One such phrase was invariably uttered whenever someone almost achieved something but fell a little short. He would say, ponderously, "'Almost' only counts in horse shoes, hand grenades, and atom bombs." It certainly didn't enhance the guy's popularity and I'm pretty sure he grew up to be the main character in Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground; that or a leading figure in the tea party movement.

In any event, I was thinking about this phrase the other day in light of the on-going concerns regarding Iran's nuclear program. Because indeed, as President Obama acknowledged in a recent interview with the New York Times's David Sanger, were Iran to become "nuclear capable" it would effectively be the same as actually having produced a weapon. Capability is the line you don't want a proliferator to cross ... and were Iran to nudge across that line, it would likely set in motion a wide ranging chain of events that would almost certainly include: heavy incoming rhetorical fireworks, strategic backtracking by countries who resisted sanctions, tactical consternation from the Israelis as they recognize the world is going to do precious little to address what they see as a critical threat and a full scale diplomatic assault from the United States, designed to shape the alliances that will form the containment network/nuclear umbrella club that will be our post-nuclear Iran "strategy." 

However, in recent conversations concerning this possible shift in the situation in the Middle East with diplomats from several countries in Asia, the greater Middle East, and Latin America, another perceived consequence emerged: There was a universal sense that Israel is becoming more isolated and the United States is becoming more dependent for its regional strategy on Arab states. Further, as a result of the likely demands those states will make for action by the United States to help move the Israelis along toward a resolution of their conflict with the Palestinians ... and the perception that Obama must make a move in the Muslim world to fulfill the now questioned promise of his Cairo speech ... and due to the view that Israel is more isolated than ever in terms of international support (or lack thereof) ... there was a sense that the evolving situation is having the added effect of emboldening the Palestinians.

The predicted result offered up in three separate conversations: that the Palestinians will declare independence unilaterally. (I'm not recommending this approach -- just reporting what they said.) And, in the words of one diplomat who is in regular contact with the Palestinians, "much sooner than you might think." 

It seems plausible. They have been making noises in this vein for a couple years and the volume has been dialed up recently. And the theory among these close observers of the situation is that right now, perhaps more than at any time in recent history, the likelihood of much global pushback seems low.  

And frankly, reason even some mainstream American foreign policy specialists with whom I discussed this, why not? Edging up to the point of doing this is very nearly the same as having done it -- waters have been tested, tides have shifted increasingly in their favor. (The Palestinians seem to be using the same technique White Houses use when they float the names of Supreme Court candidates for a few days to see if anyone attacks.)

If there is support and the likelihood of meaningful pushback from anyone other than the Israelis and the United States seems low, why not proceed? The reality is that the vast majority of the world sees this as the Palestinians' right and doesn't care much that the closest recent brushes with a deal on this front involved Israeli concessions and Palestinian intransigence. Some see such a move as a way to move beyond process and to compress and focus negotiations. 

Might this just be one of those diplo-rumors du jour? Yes. If it's real could it backfire? Sure ... in fact, it could lead to a flare up with Israel at precisely the worst moment for U.S. and Israeli concerns about Iran. But one would have to believe that there were Palestinian connections to Iranians to see that as something more than a coincidence.