I’m a historian of US foreign policy. The Biden administration’s effort to muddle the waters about the staggering human toll of Israel’s assault on Gaza is in keeping with Washington’s long history of atrocity denialism on behalf of allies.

US president Joe Biden (L) and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023, amid Israel’s assault on Gaza. (Miriam Alster / Pool / AFP via Getty Images)

“I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed. . . . I’m sure innocents have been killed, and it’s the price of waging a war . . . but I have no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using.” This was President Joe Biden’s response on October 26 to a reporter’s question about the death toll from Israel’s indiscriminate bombing campaign in Gaza.

As I write, Israel has cut communication networks in Gaza and unleashed its fiercest bombardment of the strip yet, following twenty days of bombing and shelling that have already killed more than 7,700 Palestinians, including at least 3,000 children, wounded some 20,000, and damaged or destroyed over a third of the buildings in Gaza. The Biden administration has sought to portray itself as both staunchly supportive of Benjamin Netanyahu’s military assault on Gaza, the ostensible aim of which is to eliminate Hamas, and concerned with the humanitarian impact on Palestinian civilians. At the same time, the United States has repeatedly vetoed United Nations (UN) resolutions calling for a humanitarian pause in the war and flatly rejected the growing global demands for a cease-fire.

The Biden administration’s repeated questioning of Palestinian casualty figures prompted the Gaza Health Ministry to release a comprehensive list of those killed by Israeli bombing and shelling. It makes for grim reading. But Biden’s attempt to sow doubt about the human toll of Israel’s assault is in keeping with a broad US pattern, stretching back decades, of rejecting allegations of mass murder by client states and allies, and of disputing casualty numbers cited by journalists, activists, and international organizations.

I wrote my first book on US relations with Indonesia in the 1960s, and in particular the Lyndon Johnson administration’s support for the campaign of mass murder carried out by the Indonesian armed forces in late 1965 and early 1966, when it overthrew Indonesian president Suharto. Scholars estimate that the army and its allies slaughtered half a million Indonesian civilians between October 1965 and March 1966. Even as they provided crucial military and economic backing to Indonesia’s armed forces, Johnson administration officials privately recommended “the desirability of downplaying the extent of the carnage . . . especially when questioned by the press.”  The Johnson administration likewise rejected casualty figures of hundreds of thousands in Nigeria’s US-backed war against the Biafran secessionist movement between 1967 and 1970, while emphasizing its support for humanitarian access to the besieged state of Eastern Nigeria.

Washington’s commitment to dismissing allegations of mass murder and atrocities carried out by its diplomatic friends was bipartisan and enduring. When Pakistan launched a war in 1971 to prevent the secession of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, killing hundreds of thousands, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stood by the Pakistani military and sought to suppress or discredit reporting on the horrific civilian toll, leading to a low-level revolt by US embassy officials in Pakistan. Following the US-backed overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, and again following a US-backed military coup in Argentina in 1976, Nixon and later Gerald Ford administration officials publicly denied contemporary press, church, and human rights accounts of tens of thousands arrested, murdered, and tortured, accusing regime opponents of being pro-communist.

Both Democratic and Republican administrations likewise scoffed at press and human rights reports of mass murder when Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony of East Timor in December 1975, with the blessing of the United States, killing between fifty and one hundred thousand people over the next twelve months. Former Australian consul James Dunn, testifying before Congress in early 1977, said the Indonesian killings “might well constitute . . . the most serious case of contravention of human rights facing the world at this time.” US officials in Jimmy Carter’s administration, which was preparing to double military aid to Indonesia, publicly denounced Dunn’s estimates as “greatly exaggerated” and claimed only a few thousand people had perished in Timor, “most of whom would have been fighting men on both sides.”

One of the most infamous instances of US atrocity denial took place in December 1981 during El Salvador’s civil war, when the US-trained Atlacatl special forces battalion massacred more than nine hundred people in the village of El Mozote. The Ronald Reagan administration, which was providing millions of dollars to arm and train Salvadoran military units, initially rejected allegations of the massacre altogether, before shifting to blaming any killings on left-wing guerrillas. When journalists visited El Mozote and confirmed that the Atlacatl battalion had indeed carried out a massacre, US officials, led by then Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Elliott Abrams, publicly denied mass casualty figures as FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) propaganda, a position he maintains to this day. (Abrams was recently nominated by Biden to serve on the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.) When US-backed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein launched a genocidal assault on Iraqi Kurds in 1988, deploying poison gas and killing thousands, Reagan administration officials again denied reports, blamed the use of poison gas on Iran, or downplayed their significance.

We can find many similar examples over the last thirty years. Most recently, the Donald Trump (and now Biden) administration muddied the water about the scope and scale of US-assisted Saudi atrocities and killings in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has slaughtered more than one hundred thousand civilians, and suppressed internal warnings that US officials might be guilty of war crimes for continuing to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia.

In the US’s long campaign of carrying water for brutal allies and repressive client states, Israel has been a particular beneficiary. Bill Clinton’s administration obliged in 1996 when Israel bombed a UN compound in Qana in southern Lebanon and killed 106 people. It rubber-stamped Israeli denials of responsibility and attempts to blame Hezbollah guerrillas, though later evidence confirmed Israeli Defense Force (IDF) culpability. Ten years later, in 2006, Israel shelled Qana again, killing fifty-four in a single strike. Again, the IDF blamed Hezbollah, with Obama Administration support, and again it emerged Israel had deliberately targeted civilians in what Human Rights Watch later called a war crime.

The Biden administration’s determination to downplay the extent of Israeli killings of civilians in Gaza, to amplify Israeli military propaganda, and to deny the credibility of Palestinian casualty figures should be seen in this light. As Israel’s relentless war continues — despite growing protests and significant public support in the United States for a cease-fire — we should not expect White House spokespeople or Biden himself to acknowledge the chilling number of Palestinian deaths as confirmed by journalists, human rights organizations, and others. We should instead expect the US government — as it has been doing for years, under Democratic and Republican administrations alike — to minimize the massacres carried out by a close ally like Israel and use its diplomatic and media influence to this end.

As the atrocities pile up, the atrocity denialism will almost certainly deepen.

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