One who declined ‘The Washington Compromise’

Special to WorldTribune

Robert Morton, The Washington Times  May 5, 1996

In October 1976, the Middle East estimator for U.S. Air Force Intelligence got a call from a New York Times reporter. Dr. Joseph Churba recalled that when the phone rang he was in traction, hospitalized with back problems caused by sitting for hours reading cable traffic and other reports.

Dr. Joseph Churba testified before Congress in 1991 in favor of a pre-emptive strike on North Korea: ‘Distasteful as it may be to consider such a preemptive strategy there may be no better alternative under the present circumstances.

The Times reporter, Bernard Gwertzman, wanted to know his reaction to a statement by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. George S. Brown, that Israel was a “burden” to the United States. Mr. Brown had been rebuked two years earlier by President Gerald Ford for a speech at Duke University in which he suggested that Jews controlled banks and newspapers in the United States.

Clearly Mr. Brown had some explaining to do. But for Mr. Churba to respond on the record would have been career suicide. He didn’t hesitate.

Gen. Brown’s remarks were “dangerously irresponsible because it is precisely what the Soviets and Arabs are telling the United States,” he said. Furthermore, the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s chairman’s comments were further evidence of an increasing “tilt against Israel in the Defense Department.”

The story in the New York Times was published the following day, Oct. 20, under the headline: “Pentagon Is Accused Of Anti-Israel Stand: Air Force’s Mideast Intelligence Expert Criticizes Gen. Brown.”

In his autobiography The Washington Compromise published late last year by University Press of America, Churba — who died unexpectedly at the age of 62 on April 18 — wrote that he knew he was being quoted “in a major story in the ‘newspaper of record,’ ” but that he felt it was time to speak out. He was exasperated to the point of despair by the politicization of U.S. foreign policy in general and of the intelligence estimates for the Middle East and the Soviet Union in particular.

In a city that had recently rid itself of Richard Nixon and any responsibility for the hell then descending on Indochina, in a political arena where the delicate balance between style and substance was no more, “the reverberations came swiftly.”

“I was informed by the Pentagon that my special security clearances were suspended on the grounds that I had ‘technically violated’ Defense Department regulations. The nature of that ‘violation’ was never explained to me. Be that as it may, the suspension of clearances made it impossible to discharge my official duties, and my hand was thus forced.”

On the other hand, Gen. Brown, beat the rap.

Mr. Churba defined the Washington Compromise in his prologue as “the surrender of principle in return for . . . political advantage, bureaucratic edge, personal job security and advancement . . . . I refer, in other words, to a corruption of the democratic process.”

Related: 26 years ago, this strategist urged a U.S. preemptive strike on North Korea, December 4, 2017

In terms of foreign policy, which was his life’s work, Mr. Churba laid forth a broader definition of the Washington Compromise: “It involves forfeiture (deliberate or not) of the national interest for the sake of political and/or personal advantage.”

In 1996 Washington, where pleasing the Democratic press and “getting along” is the unchallenged norm, the above story is a textbook example of the violation of protocol and a breach in the military command. But Mr. Churba was a civilian who considered his role as a senior intelligence official to be above bureaucratic posturing. How quaint and anachronistic even then. And how refreshing to contemplate now.

The Washington Compromise lays out many other examples of principled stands and pragmatic betrayals, and it explains how this descendant of the ancient rabbis of Aleppo in Syria learned from his immigrant father the meaning and value of integrity.

Compromise of deeply-held principles was unconscionable. But in the increasingly secular America, the religious path was blocked. Although trained as a rabbi, Mr. Churba was the first eldest son in 14 generations of his family to take a different career. Completing his doctorate at Columbia in international politics and law, he in due course found himself working with the head of U.S. Air Force Intelligence, Gen. George Keegan, and at odds with Henry Kissinger and Gen. George Brown.

The only sacred scriptures in that world were those published daily in the pages of The New York Times which recorded his political obituary on Nov. 11, 1976 (“Air Aide Who Complained Is Out.”)

“So,” Mr. Churba wrote, “I found myself not only unemployed but virtually without friends. Still, I had no regrets then; nor have I entertained any since. To be sure, the practical course for me would have been the established bureaucratic road — to ‘go with the crowd.’ I could have kept silence on Gen. Brown, and be collecting my government pension today. I did not have to disagree with flawed national intelligence estimates.”

“The reality is that I truly could not have done otherwise. Quite simply, my upbringing did not prepare me to place career or job security above integrity and principle. Indeed, I considered it my obligation to challenge the established but dangerously mistaken U.S. policy “mindsets.”

Mr. Churba wrote several books, authored candidate Ronald Reagan’s widely quoted Op-Ed column (“Recognizing The Israeli Asset”) which was published in The Washington Post on Aug. 15, 1979, took a brief stint in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and then headed up the private International Security Council, whose journals and reports were free of bureaucratic/media correctness and equivocation.

What he never forgot was the lesson he said he learned from his father growing up in Brooklyn. “Principles meant little without the courage to uphold them. Still, the costs of upholding may be heavy. They must be calculated even when there is no choice.”

After completing The Washington Compromise, Joseph Churba closed a chapter in his life and, four months ago, returned to New York. But before he could turn a new leaf, his life story closed. No compromise there either. Perhaps in time we will see his kind again.

Robert Morton is Managing Editor of the National Weekly Edition of The Washington Times and a media fellow at the Hoover Institution. He served as a newspaper correspondent in Tokyo from 1978 – 80.

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