US Senator Ben Cardin, December 18, 2015. (US Congress)

Cardin: Independent Press a ‘Bedrock Principle’ of Democracy

Russian involvement in Middle East not good for United States, senior Maryland senator says

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) is the senior senator for Maryland, having served in the Senate since 2007.

Although known for his work on fiscal and environmental issues, he is knowledgeable in matters of journalism and press freedoms, and recently co-sponsored a bill to memorialize fallen journalists.

Cardin discussed this and other topics with The Media Line’s Felice Friedson. To hear the interview, go the first episode of the Hill on the Middle East podast. A transcript of the interview follows.

The Media Line: Sen. Cardin, throughout your career you’ve exhibited great respect for journalism and a keen interest in its importance. Recently, you co-sponsored a rare, bipartisan bill with Sen. [Rob] Portman [R-Ohio] that memorializes fallen journalists. Many Americans believe there is a crisis in journalism, that it no longer functions as a system of checks and balances. How do you feel about it?

Ben Cardin: Well, an independent press is critically important to a democracy. It’s one of the bedrock principles and it is embedded in our constitution. We find that under attack today [and] certainly globally. Journalists are in real danger. They are arrested. They are harassed. They are imprisoned. They are tortured. They are killed. It is a dangerous profession around the world. And we find that even in democratic states a weakening in the independence of journalists. We have leaders in countries that are diminishing the importance of the media, calling it in some cases the enemy of the state. We have a challenge with legitimate investigative reporting today since so much of the news comes off of cable or the internet. It’s a challenge to have the type of respective journalism that we’ve had in the past, so it’s a challenge economically. The resources aren’t being invested how they used to be because of the way people get information today. All of this is making more and more pressure for maintaining the integrity of journalism.

TML: The late Steven Sotloff was one of our journalists and we all know that James Foley, as well, was beheaded by ISIS. Five years from now, 10 years from now, are people going to remember who they are?

BC: Well, I certainly hope that we will educate our children about the heroics of journalists. One of the bills you referred to and that I have filed with Sen. Portman is to set up a memorial on the National Mall for fallen journalists. Journalists, again, are the bedrock of our democracy. And we do want their stories told. We want future generations to realize not only the sacrifices that were made by our soldiers to defend our democracy but the sacrifices that were made by journalists.

TML: Your Newspaper Revitalization Act [of 2009] would have saved many newspapers, particularly in the non-profit arena. What happened there?

BC: It was very disappointing that I did not have more support for an effort to provide additional support to our newspapers, particularly community newspapers. To a large extent, turning into a non-profit so that you could get third-party contributions from a community would not have changed at all the character of journalism except to give it a viable source of revenue so that they can maintain investigative journalism. The opposition came mainly from the view that they could do it on their own. They wanted to keep the current model in place and they wanted to get involved directly in politics with endorsements on elections, and that’s inconsistent with a non-profit, and quite frankly, I wonder if that’s the real purpose of a newspaper – to influence opinions on elections or whether it’s to get the facts out to our citizens so they can exercise independent judgment.

TML: Please help us understand what the new journalistic environment means to the country where many claim practicing quality journalism could be at risk. At Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, the bottom fell out over the parameters of journalism and what it means. Should student journalists be in this state?

BC: Well, we have to protect journalists at all levels. On our campuses, you would think that would be an easy thing to do. With the independence on our campuses, of free thought and allowing themselves to express themselves, you would think having a paper that could operate without fear or intimidation would be a given. Well, you see here it was not, that there was outside influence because they were trying to report to impact their ability to report that news. The challenge in America today [is that] you have leaders who are trying to suppress facts from getting out. That encourages activities such as that we saw at Northwestern University.

TML: As a Democrat with decades of support for the United States-Israel relationship under your belt, you no doubt have strong feelings about the current debate that paints Democrats as wavering on support for the state, the Jewish state. What are the consequences here?

BC: Well, there is a special relationship that exists between the State of Israel and the United States. It helps the security of both countries. America does not have a closer ally that shares our values in that part of the world than we do with the State of Israel. And the State of Israel has had the reliable support of the United States to provide the type of help it needs, for example, the Iron Dome [air-defense missile system] and things like that, where the United States has been critically important to the State of Israel, and also giving it international credibility. So it’s based upon shared values. Those shared values exist to this day. The special relationship was recognized first by [president] Harry Truman and every successive administration since, and recognized by both sides of the aisle in Congress. And that’s true today. There are times that we’ve had different views, but this is the first time that I can recall that there has been an effort made to make this a political wedge issue mainly because of the person who happens to be prime minister at the time. It’s based more on partisan politics than it is on issues. And it’s unfortunate. It’s wrong. It should have no place in American politics, and it jeopardizes the special relationship, so I am absolutely convinced that the overwhelming majority of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress support the special relationship between the United States and Israel.

TML: Candidates are arguing about designating American aid to Israel to benefit the Gaza Strip by … sanctioning Israel. Have you discussed this with any of the new members who are supporting it?

BC: Well, quite frankly, I don’t see this as a major issue in Congress. We know that our relationship with Israel [and] the funds that are made available through the foreign aid programs are used as intended by Congress for the development of Israel. There is no need to make that conditional on any activity. We recognize also that [with] the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians, there has to be a will on both sides for that peace process to move forward, and whereas the United States can be helpful, ultimately you need the courage of the leaders of both countries to move – both Israel and the Palestinians – to make that happen. So until that happens, it is wrong for the United States to try to say we’re going to help the Palestinians by conditioning aid. Israel is an independent country that shares our values. They do the right thing. [Such proposed policy] does not have support in Congress.

TML: [The] Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [movement] has gotten stronger and bolder. Anti-Semitism on a global scale reminds many of the 1930s. Senator, can it be rolled back?

BC: So recognize, the people who started the BDS movement are people who are anti-Zionist, anti-Israel, and they would like to see Israel destroyed, so the purpose of it was to delegitimize the State of Israel and to affect its viability. The challenges that a lot of people don’t understand with BDS is a ballot, so if you frame it as a matter of free activity or speech, then you’re going to get people who are going to say “I’m for that!” And we all are for that, but if they understand that the purpose is to intimidate American companies [with] financial pressure in order to boycott Israel, as we saw with the original Arab boycotts against Israel, that if you want to do business with the Arab states, you can’t do business with Israel. When you explain it that way, that this is really protecting American companies to do what they want, if an American company does not want to do business with Israel, it doesn’t have to do business with Israel. But you don’t want to penalize commerce with Israel with those who want to do business. So depending on how you frame it, you get overwhelming support against BDS. Unfortunately, there are those, I think, who have used this for their [own] purposes to try and tilt the scales against Israel.

TML: Ironically, the Gulf countries are warming relations with Israel at the present time despite [the] Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [movement]. Do you feel that it’s [a matter of “the] enemy of my enemy is my friend”? Or is it beyond that?

BC: No, I think this is a practical decision being made by modern Arab states. They recognize that the future economy is not in oil. That the future economy, they have to diversify what they do, and they recognize Israel as the strongest economy in the region, so they look at it in a way of strengthening their own country by having economic ties with Israel. They also look at Israel as helping them on security issues. Israel has no desire to expand its geography, but yet there are countries in the Middle East such as Iran that pose threats to moderate Arab states, so they look at Israel as an ally in preventing that type of national security issue.

TML: I’m glad you brought up Iran. That’s my next question. You’ve said that President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal was a mistake. You voted against it. What was the mistake?

BC: The mistake was that when the president withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement, Iran was in compliance with it. He then isolated America rather than isolating Iran in the international community. I’ve had numerous conversations with our European allies, and they look at America as the outlier, not Iran, and that’s unfortunate. We need the European countries to isolate Iran, particularly through sanctions on the non-nuclear side. We’re not able to get that now since [the US] withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement, so we don’t have the united support against Iran that we need. And quite frankly, my major problem with the Iran nuclear agreement was what happens after the limit dates. We’ve exceeded it. We had time to try to resolve that with our European friends [but] instead the United States was isolated with what President Trump did.

TML: Do you feel that Russia is becoming more of a danger in terms of the United States’ track in the Middle East?

BC: Absolutely! Russia has gotten much more actively engaged in the Middle East. You see that in Syria. You see that with their relationship with Iran. You see that in other countries. You see where Turkey, where Erdogan is meeting with Mr. Putin. You see that with the visits that take place between Arab leaders and Russian leaders. Clearly, they are much more engaged, so now we’re talking about certain settlement talks in the Middle East, and Russia is in the middle of all of those. That’s not good for Israel. That’s not good for the United States.

TML: What do you know about the Jared Kushner plan that gives you confidence in the administration’s vision in the Middle East?

BC: We’re all in favor of any plan that can move forward the peace process. Mr. Kushner is using some economic incentives, which are very much needed. Quite frankly, the Israeli government has moved forward with economic plans, particularly on the West Bank, which has proven to be very successful. Gaza is a different story. It’s much more challenging to get investment into Gaza. So, investment is important, as that gives the Palestinians an economic future. I think the Israeli government recognizes that, and I think Mr. Kushner recognizes that. I don’t think he has a peace plan. I think he’s trying to get some confidence built between the parties that has pretty much been discredited, certainly by the Palestinians.

TML: Palestinians look like they might be itching to get back with America. Do you think that might happen?

BC: I find that most countries that are struggling, that are trying to develop economically, that are trying to develop stronger centralized governments [and] are concerned about the protection of their national security from threats from without, if they can have an alliance with the United States, that’s what they want. The United States is the most reliable partner you can have. They have the capacity, they have the staying power, and they have the values. Most importantly, they have the values – what we stand for – a country that respects human rights and diversity, and those issues. So if you’re a leader trying to lead your country to the [point] where they can self-determine their future and protect their own citizens and have an economic future, you want the United States as your partner. And it also gives you the best alliance on military equipment, on training, on people-to-people exchanges with our universities and colleges. The list goes on and on and on. You want the United States as your partner.

TML: When you look at newspapers, you think local-global in terms of news, and yet the Middle East plays a very vital role. Do you think most Americans understand why the Middle East today is that important?

BC: I really don’t know whether Americans appreciate the history [of] what’s happened in the Middle East. Quite frankly, they’re concerned more about what’s happening in their own neighborhoods than they are with what’s happening globally. So I would say that they read about the Middle East because it’s so frequently in the news, but they don’t quite understand what all the fighting is about, and we find the same thing, quite frankly, in Asia. There’s not as much information that the public knows [about]. Or in Africa. So we’re a country that had original ties with Europe, and Europe has the countries that we know the best. The Middle East is not only important to America’s national security interests. And I think that is why there is an appreciation in this country for the relationship with Israel, because we know that we have a friend in the Middle East in the State of Israel.

TML: Sen. Ben Cardin, thank you so much for joining me on The Hill on the Middle East.

BC: My pleasure. Thank you!

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