Saturday, March 17, 2007

Scott McConnell: Bloggers vs the Lobby on Iran War

Here's a terrific, thoughtful article on the most important political issue that confronts us today: the threatened war against Iran. Among much else, McConnell sheds light on the power of the Lobby -- currently most decisively --over the presidential candidates, Hillary, Edwards, Rudy, et al. none of whom are able to get out from under the Lobby to reject the Bush war agenda despite its deep unpopularity. Are we in a bind or what??! One can only hope that the current scandals, notably the Justice Dept firings, etc will be a sufficient roadblock to another war.

It's hard if not impossible to fault even in a minor way the points that McConnell makes throughout. Here's a quibble for the record. McConnell correctly writes that it may be impossible to stop the "preventive" war Bush-Cheney wish to initiate against Iran. The author might have found a way to suggest that it's not a preventive war in any sense other than the propaganda that will be used to justify it. It will be, if it happens, a war to advance the Cheney permanent war agenda. Once again, the purpose of the (threatened) Iran attack is to allow Bush to stay in Iraq. The purpose of the Iraq war -- other than to destroy the country -- is to enable an attack against Iran.


March 12, 2007 Issue
Copyright © 2007 The American Conservative

Bloggers vs. the Lobby

Israel’s propaganda fortress faces a surprising new challenge.

by Scott McConnell

Despite the failure in Iraq, the repudiation of the president’s foreign policy in opinion polls and the 2006 elections, and the collapse of respect for the U.S. in most other countries, support for the Bush Doctrine of preventive war remains surprisingly intact among one important slice of Americans: the presidential candidates of both major parties. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently lamented that Democratic contenders were sounding soft, crafting their foreign-policy positions to generate “applause lines in Iowa.” He needn’t have worried. The parade of White House aspirants to appear before a hawkish Israeli audience in Herzliya, and an equally hawkish AIPAC crowd in New York, is a truer gauge of where leading candidates stand.

On New Year’s Day, Israeli superhawk Benjamin Netanyahu called for an “intense international public relations front” to persuade Americans of the need for military confrontation with Iran. The sight of John Edwards addressing a conference in Israel by satellite feed, along with John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney—the latter two actually flew in to speak in person—indicated that the front already exists. All the candidates spoke as if preemptive war in the Middle East was a tried and true success. As a correspondent from Jewish Week summed it up, the U.S. presidential hopefuls were “competing to see who can be most strident in defense of the Jewish state.” The consensus choice for the competition’s winner was Romney, but the putatively liberal Edwards, who described preventing Iran from securing nuclear weapons as “the greatest challenge of our generation,” made a surprisingly strong showing. No leading presidential contender suggested that attacking Iran might be a bad idea.

This hawkishness is actually an outlier sentiment, popular only among those running for office. In Washington, it’s difficult to find a foreign-policy expert who thinks that any good would come of a strike on Iran. Even the neocons have their doubts. The Iraq War, miserable concept that it was, had far more respected backers.

American military options are poor. Surgical air strikes wouldn’t do anything decisive to Iran’s nuclear program, but they would create huge problems for Americans in Iraq and perhaps lead to a two or threefold rise in the price of oil. The U.S. lacks the troops to enforce regime change through a land invasion and has already demonstrated its inability to successfully occupy a Muslim country one-third Iran’s size. Furthermore, Iran, according to U.S. intelligence estimates, is ten years away from a nuclear weapon. Its seemingly nutty current president is losing support in the country. Those most theologically opposed to the Shia Islam that Tehran espouses are the very al-Qaeda Sunnis who set this dreadful train of events in motion in the first place.

So why do leading politicians line up for “The Bush Doctrine: Take Two”? On the Republican side, it might be explained by a desire to cater to elements of the Christian Right that believe a final showdown with Islam is called for on religious grounds, or to talk-radio listeners who want to nuke the “Islamofascists” because that’s what weapons are made for. Such groups form part of the GOP base. But what of Edwards, what of Hillary Clinton—both eager to be on the record for keeping all options on the table? It’s a question that cannot be truthfully answered without reference to the neuralgic subject of the Israel lobby.

It is a tough issue to address, as Gen. Wesley Clark, a middle-of-the-pack Democratic presidential contender in 2004, recently discovered. Upon reading an Arnaud de Borchgrave column that discussed a then incipient Israeli campaign to pressure Hillary Clinton and other Democrats to “publicly support immediate action by Bush against Iran,” he lost his cool, saying to Arianna Huffington, “How can you talk about bombing a country when you won’t even talk to them? It’s outrageous. We’re the United States of America; we don’t do that.” Pressed by Huffington to explain why he was sure Bush would attack Iran, he answered, “You just have to read what’s in the Israeli press. The Jewish community is divided but there is so much pressure being channeled from the New York money people to the office seekers.”

This was an awkward way to put it; the euphemism surely sounded more contentious than anything Clark might have said straightforwardly. And of course some people chose to ignore Clark’s correct assertion that the Jewish community was very divided on the Iran issue. Within days, the general was in caught in a familiar crossfire, smeared as an instigator of anti-Semitism by some Republican Jewish organizations, his remarks headlined as “Protocols of the New York Money People” by a Wall Street Journal columnist. Soon he was engaged in a humiliating apology and repentance ritual with Abe Foxman of the ADL.

At this point the story could have taken the same path it has virtually every time something similar has happened since 1970—the originator of the “anti-Semitic” gaffe apologizes, some taint remains attached to his name, and everyone is reminded once again of the perils of crossing swords with “the lobby.”

But things took a different course, for significant reasons. It hasn’t yet been established that the blogosphere has changed the nature of American politics in any fundamental way. Obviously it can quickly focus a great deal of attention on something—Trent Lott’s seemingly appreciative remarks on Strom Thurmond’s racial views of 60 years ago, for example—that might have gone completely unnoticed, thus turning Washington into even more of a fishbowl. And some minor lesson can probably be learned from John Edwards’s awkward effort to hire “edgy” left-wing bloggers, with all the unedited vulgarities they bring with them. But blogs may foment serious debate about difficult subjects and change the climate of opinion in meaningful ways. In the aftermath of Herzliya and the Clark episode, it seemed as if this was actually happening.

For within a day or two, one could read in the blogs some surprising assertions that amounted to a truth defense of Wes Clark. It seemed to come primarily from young, or comparatively young, Jewish bloggers. Observations that had been bandied about for years in private seemed to burst forth where many people could see them. This was welcome and suggests a broadening and deepening of the peace movement that so notably failed to stop the Iraq War. Suddenly there were Jewish voices talking about the Israel lobby as an established fact and, to be frank, as a bit of a problem. Significantly, these were not voices from an older and more alienated Chomskyian Left but from an American Prospect-like liberal mainstream.

In early February, Glenn Greenwald, a New York attorney who recently published a book on the Patriot Act, wrote a blog entry that focused on the New York AIPAC gathering attended by both John Edwards and Hillary Clinton. Greenwald quoted an article from the New York Sun—there is no more unimpeachably right-wing Zionist source—that featured Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf’s claim that “New York is the ATM for American politicians. Large amounts of money come from the Jewish community. If … you want dollars from that group, you need to show that you’re interested in the issue that matters most to them.” The issue that matters most, the article went on to say, is Israel, and what this group most wants to hear with regard to Israel is commitment to bellicosity toward Iran. Edwards and Mrs. Clinton did their best to comply, though according to a report in the equally Likud-friendly New York Post, Clinton apparently disappointed some in attendance by suggesting that diplomacy might be attempted before war. “This is the wrong crowd to do that with,” commented one attendee.

Greenwald went on to point out that these articles made exactly the same point that Clark made, adding, “It is simply true that there are large and extremely influential Jewish donor groups which are agitating for a U.S. war against Iran, and that is the case because those groups are devoted to promoting Israel’s interests and they perceive it to be in Israel’s interests for the U.S. to militarily confront Iran.”

Greenwald’s post was not the only one. Matthew Yglesias, a young writer with a blog and similar political orientation, also addressed the Clark issue, noting that while Jewish opinion was divided on Iran, “Everything Clark said, in short, is true. What’s more, everyone knows it’s true.” Yglesias pointed out that it is seemingly permissible to refer to the financial clout Jews wield in the Democratic Party if one is being supportive of America’s self-proclaimed “pro-Israel” forces, but if you’re critical of this influence, you’re denounced as an anti-Semite.

Ezra Klein, another young blogger, also referred to the Clark episode, and his post addressed the question that underlies the entire issue: the vulnerability of Israel to Iranian nuclear weapons. Did not the concentration of Jews in a small state surrounded by hostile neighbors raise questions about the usefulness of the Zionist enterprise in general, since the whole point was to make Jews more rather than less secure?

Of course any sensible person recognizes that an Iranian nuclear weapon would raise serious strategic concerns for Israel, likely forcing it into the deterrent posture of mutual assured destruction that the United States had to endure during much of the Cold War. Addressing these dilemmas, one (regrettably anonymous) commenter on Klein’s blog wrote:

I’d suggest a second conclusion: Make friends with the neighbors. We’ve got a long history of doing it. Only this time it would be from a position of strength, which is ultimately the purpose of the State of Israel. Yes, there are deep rooted, generational hostilities at play. But we Jews excel at all sorts of things that make life better for people: the practice of medicine and law, scientific research, and yes, commerce. If there were a real commitment, not just to peace, but to regional prosperity, it would happen.

However “unrealistic” this vision might seem in the near term, it deserves to be quoted at length. Its noble vision stands alone against the tremendously well-funded propaganda edifice of the Israel lobby, from AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League to the American Jewish Committee and multiple other groups, whose dank worldview reaches deep into the conservative think tanks and the upper echelons of the Bush administration. The AIPAC sensibility is expressed in cruder form by right-wing talk-radio hosts who every day try to soften up their listeners to the idea of American nuclear strikes against Muslim cities.

But this hopeless view of the world, however much it is amplified by today’s Jewish establishment, is not the only perspective of American Jews. Indeed it is not even the majority view. A poll by the American Jewish Committee revealed that support among Jews for a military strike against Iran had dropped from 49 percent last year to 38 percent at present.

One could argue that the dovish sentiment expressed by the commenter on the Klein blog is not only more grounded in history, human nature, and the particular Jewish experience than the one we hear from the American Jewish establishment before which Clinton, Edwards, Romney, and Giuliani kowtow. Is it really practical to think that Israel’s long-term security needs can be satisfied by having the United States smash the country’s potential enemies as they arise, again and again?

The blogosphere is playing a role in bringing to the fore these kinds of dissenting views—though they may be majority views—letting them circulate and evolve under the test of critical argument. But even without the blogs, there have been signs that the lobby’s edifice is cracking. How else can one interpret the amazing document published by the American Jewish Committee last month, which accused several prominent American Jews of “anti-Semitism” because of their criticisms of current Israeli policies? It is one thing to claim that Christians who criticize Israel or the American relationship to Israel are motivated by anti-Semitism; this has long been a standard rhetorical tactic. But to wield that word against Jews—several of them very prominent in journalism, culture and academia—seemed so silly as to be a symptom of something like panic, as if the traditional big powers feel the debate about Israel and American foreign policy is veering out of their control.

Perhaps the AJC’s targets really weren’t only Professor Tony Judt or playwright Tony Kushner, or even the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, the latter hardly a strident critic of Israel. As Yglesias bluntly explained it, “the idea, basically, is to scare the goyim who figure that while liberal Jews can take the heat, they probably can’t, and had best just avoid talking about the whole thing.”

Yglesias is on to something important here, though the situation is more complicated than he described. Both Jews and gentiles have been raising the volume of discussion about the American-Israeli relationship and Israeli policies. On the Jewish side, there is a profusion of important peace-oriented websites. The explosion of interest in the Walt-Mearsheimer essay and Jimmy Carter’s book evince a Christian awakening of the Mideast’s critical importance. The perilous present geopolitical context explains this: a great many people wouldn’t risk the opprobrium of the lobby for the sake of the Palestinians, who often wage their struggle far less impressively than one might wish. But letting the lobby influence American foreign policy toward Iraq raises the stakes mightily. Allowing Bibi Netanyahu and his American allies to call the tune of U.S. policy toward Iran is far too much to bear.

But it’s true that many Christians won’t enter this battle without Jewish allies or at least will join it with less enthusiasm. It’s not simply that they can’t take the heat. It’s that those who have spent much time in journalism or academia or trying to influence public policy have generally done so alongside Jews and are accustomed to having Jews play significant roles in their personal and professional lives. To fight a battle without Jewish colleagues, or even against Jewish colleagues, is likely to feel rather lonely. This is no doubt less true for hardcore Christian Zionists—curiously the most aggressively Likudnik of all segments of Christian opinion—than it is for other gentiles. But it is this sentiment that makes the new effervescence of Jewish dissent so important for the country at the present moment. It opens a door for Christians to voice opinions they might otherwise keep to themselves—not for fear of what Abe Foxman might say about them, but out of discomfort of being isolated from the urban, “cosmopolitan,” Jewish-influenced milieu of which they have long been part.

It may be beyond the American people’s power to stop George W. Bush from launching another preventive war. But even though the president and his top advisers can isolate themselves from currents of public opinion, that is less the case for top military officers. And it is far more likely that they will find ways to raise meaningful speedbumps and roadblocks on the route to an expanded war if there is a large enough public outcry against it. Right now there is not. Indeed, key Democrats and Republicans are maneuvering for applause lines in Herzliya as much as in Iowa. There remains a policy-expert consensus that attacking Iran would be very foolish, but it is hardly loud and far from powerful. It has no political force behind it.

That’s why the truth defense floated on behalf of Wes Clark was important, and that’s why the mockery that has greeted the AJC’s claim that Jews who criticize Israel are “anti-Semites” are such hopeful signs: they offer the possibility of a movement rising that could save the United States from compounding the errors it has already made. .

March 12, 2007 Issue

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