U.S. Middle East Policy
Iraq, Iran and the Lobby
Four years after the invasion of Iraq, and
the War Party is still in the driver's seat
It wasn't supposed to be like this: we weren't supposed to be "celebrating" the fourth anniversary of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. It was going to be a "cakewalk," the Iraqis would rise up and shower us with rose petals, and Johnny would come marching home in no time. Remember? Besides that, the whole deal would be cost-free, you see, because the revived Iraqi oil industry, no longer under sanctions, would pay the costs of the war. Or so Paul Wolfowitz assured us.
Well, we know all too well what happened instead, yet one can't help wondering: how it is that the very people who got us into this war in the first place are still in a position to get us into another – and are rapidly proceeding to do so?
In most democratic countries, a government that had birthed such a disaster as the Iraq war would have fallen long ago, but this one endures, and, in any case, its probable successor is not going to have a very different approach to foreign policy. This was brought home by the recent action of the Democratic congressional leadership in stripping the military appropriations bill of a provision that would have required the president to seek congressional approval before attacking Iran. Speaker Pelosi had just been booed at the AIPAC conference for criticizing the Iraq war when she rushed back to her office and struck the Iran provision from the bill – just as the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group had been insisting, albeit not too loudly.
After all, the AIPAC conference was supposed to be toning down the ongoing campaign to get us into a shooting war with Iran, but, as the Jerusalem Post pointed out, "the effort was laid to waste once Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed the audience at the gala dinner Monday night." There is supposedly a taboo against Israeli government officials intruding too aggressively in their efforts to influence American politics, although that never stopped Ariel Sharon from openly calling for the U.S. to invade Iraq – as a prelude to taking on Syria and Iran. Olmert went beyond anything Sharon ever attempted, however, in his AIPAC speech:
"I know that... all of you who are concerned about the security and the future of the State of Israel understand the importance of strong American leadership addressing the Iranian threat, and I am sure you will not hamper or restrain that strong leadership unnecessarily."
As we have seen, he was right to be "sure" – Nancy must have skedaddled right back to her office pretty darn fast to excise the offending passage from her bill. But Olmert didn't stop there:
"Those who are concerned for Israel's security, for the security of the Gulf States, and for the stability of the entire Middle East should recognize the need for American success in Iraq and responsible exit. Any outcome that will not help America's strength and would, in the eyes of the people in the region, undercut America's ability to deal effectively with the threat posed by the Iranian regime will be very negative."
With the Democrats in control of Congress – and, in my view at least, more than likely to regain the White House – the Israelis are rightly concerned that their future is not so bright. Israel is finally getting its fair share of criticism of late, and a new boldness in Democratic Party circles – as well as among Republican "realists" – in calling the "special relationship" into question does not augur well for Tel Aviv. This kind of open intervention in U.S. politics by the Israeli leadership can be read as an act of desperation. Faced with what they believe is an "existential" threat from Iran, the Israelis apparently believe they can no longer afford the luxury of subtlety.
Not that there has ever been anything too subtle about AIPAC's hold over Congress. As John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt put it in their study of the Israel lobby's decisive influence on American foreign policy:
"A key pillar of the Lobby's effectiveness is its influence in Congress, where Israel is virtually immune from criticism. This in itself is remarkable, because Congress rarely shies away from contentious issues. Where Israel is concerned, however, potential critics fall silent. One reason is that some key members are Christian Zionists like Dick Armey, who said in September 2002: 'My No. 1 priority in foreign policy is to protect Israel.' One might think that the No. 1 priority for any congressman would be to protect America."
A frightening example of the Christian Zionist-AIPAC alliance in action was this speech at the AIPAC conference by John Hagee, a born-again evangelical and head of Christians for Israel, wherein biblical prophecy is cited – amid images of Armageddon – to justify unconditional support to the Jewish state. (I'll bet this is one manifestation of "Christianism" that Andrew Sullivan will never notice.)
Congress, as Pat Buchanan trenchantly put it way back before Gulf War I, is "Israeli-occupied territory," so it doesn't matter that a war with Iran isn't in American interests. To the politicians who cater to the Israel lobby, there is no daylight between Israeli and American interests; but of course there are significant differences, which have only been exacerbated in the post-9/11 era. We desperately need to stave off the rising influence of extremism in the Muslim world, and yet our government insists on unconditionally taking Tel Aviv's side no matter what the issue or how blatantly unjust Israeli behavior is – due to the unrivaled power of the Israel lobby as a force in American politics. In 1997, legislators were asked to rate lobbies, and they put AIPAC in the number two spot, just below the AARP but ahead of the National Rifle Association and the AFL-CIO. Yes, the Israel lobby has just as much clout in the Democratic Party as the labor unions – if not more – which means that we'll never see a foreign policy that puts America first coming from that side of the aisle.
While the Lobby is quick to accuse its opponents of anti-Semitism, what is striking is the complete disconnect between the politics of AIPAC and the politics of American Jews. Pelosi was booed for her stance on Iraq at the AIPAC conference, but her critique of that misadventure is shared by the overwhelming majority of Jews in this country. And that doesn't seem to matter to most politicians – including Pelosi, who bowed, after all, to Olmert's diktat.
Just as this war, as I've been saying since Day One, was fought to advance Israel's interests, not America's. The next war – yes, I mean the looming conflict with Iran – will be fought for the same reason. American foreign policy has long since ceased pursuing the genuine national interests of this country, and instead is being held hostage by a coalition of neoconservative ideologues and foreign lobbyists, who have no compunctions about leading us into an abyss as long as their no-longer-quite-so-hidden agenda is served.
The big problem for the Lobby is that their power, and willingness to wield it, is no longer a forbidden subject. Increasingly, there is an open discussion of AIPAC's role as the War Party's nerve center and its effective control over the foreign policy agendas of both parties. It is therefore necessary for the Lobby to ratchet up the rhetoric, whip dissidents into line, and keep any potential waverers from breaking ranks. What Olmert said about the alleged mentality of the "people of the region" (the Arabs and Persians) – that any show of "weakness" will only embolden them to resist – applies equally to the Americans. If the Lobby lets a few politicians get away with "Israel-bashing" (i.e., expressing some sympathy for the Palestinians, or questioning why it is that American foreign policy only tilts one way when it comes to the Middle East), then the floodgates will be opened. They can't afford to lose control, or so they seem to think.
It is absolutely astonishing that all of the major Democratic candidates for the White House proclaim their willingness to go to war with Iran if "diplomacy," meaning a relentless barrage of threats, fails to work. Not a single one dares critique our Israel-centered foreign policy. On the question of Iraq, however, Olmert has made a major mistake in intervening, because in doing so he has set himself against almost two-thirds of the American people, who want us out as soon as possible. This puts the politicians, too, in a difficult position: do they obey Olmert's marching orders, or listen to the polls – and their own constituents?
That it is even possible to ask such a question is a dramatic indication that something is very wrong with our political system, and desperately requires fixing. I wonder, however, if there is any single reform that would do any good. This, after all, is democracy in action – operating not in accordance with majority rule, as is commonly assumed, but on the principle of "the squeaky wheel gets the grease." Using the mechanisms of democracy,a small but passionate minority can successfully impose its will on the largely apathetic majority – and it doesn't hurt, as Wesley Clark pointed out, that many of the Democratic Party's major donors have made fealty to Israeli interests a litmus test for candidates.
Speaker Pelosi, who was a Democratic fundraiser long before she was promoted to Congress, knows this all too well, as her actions on the Iran matter dramatically confirm. After all, George W. Bush will veto the appropriations bill if it comes with what he considers extraneous and unacceptable riders, such as restrictions on funding that impede the surge – so why not submit it to the floor with the Iran provision intact just to make a point?
The Democrats backed down, and fast, so our future is all mapped out for us. It took only four years for this administration to get the Middle East escalator going and gin up another war on the heels of the last one. An even greater regional cataclysm – this time, in Iran – seems all but inevitable.
I wish I saw a way out of this, but I don't. Short of firing Congress, as well as impeaching the president and vice president, we will be at war with Iran just as surely as we are now stuck in the Iraqi quicksand – and that war will be brought to you by the same crew that started the previous one. It's like we're caught in a recurring nightmare, in which the same ghouls rise up and taunt us with their banshee screams, singing a chorus of war-cries, drowning out all sense until our eardrums nearly burst. As I put it in a column published in 2004:
"This war has benefited only two actors in the Middle East drama: bin Laden and Ariel Sharon. The extremists are empowered, instead of isolated, and the future is war, war, and more war, as far as the eye can see...."
Events have, unfortunately, only confirmed my prognosis, but there is reason for optimism in the long run, even if short-term pessimism is our lot. The American people don't like foreigners interfering in their politics, and Olmert may have gone too far. Aside from that, the trial of longtime AIPAC honcho Steve Rosen, and the group's Iran expert, Keith Weissman, on charges of giving Israel top-secret information gleaned from former Pentagon official Larry Franklin, is scheduled to finally begin this summer. The Lobby is increasingly buffeted by blowback stemming from its own arrogance, and the day of reckoning approaches. Whether that day comes before or after we go to war with Iran is, largely, a matter of chance...