Syria intervention and lobbying for Obama

By Ben Cohen/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: President Barack Obama meets with leaders from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in the State Dining Room of the White House on March 1, 2011. Far from being the war-crazed cabal that is depicted in the imaginations of conspiracy theorists, the “Israel Lobby” is in reality an oasis of calm reliability for a president who may just be on the cusp of his biggest foreign policy failure, in Syria, writes columnist Ben Cohen. Credit: White House photo by Pete Souza.

Barely minutes after the news broke that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was planning a major effort on Capitol Hill to garner support for the Obama Administration’s plan for a limited military operation against the Syrian regime, the conspiracy theorists were having a field day.

As always, it’s instructive to note how the notion that American foreign policy is a prisoner of organizations like AIPAC, the main pro-Israel lobbying group in America, is an idée fixe on both the far left and the extreme right. Juan Cole, a left-wing academic with a strong online following, grabbed the opportunity to argue that AIPAC, in advocating for what he described as “attacking Syria,” is out of touch with the opinions of most American Jews, who are not evil neoconservatives but solid progressives. The frankly kooky M.J. Rosenberg, an anti-Zionist Jewish blogger who is credited with popularizing the anti-Semitic term “Israel-Firster,” ranted about how “AIPAC and its cutouts are the only lobbying forces supporting the administration’s plans for war.”

Not to be outdone, Rod Dreher of the American Conservative, a magazine founded by Pat Buchanan, bemoaned the fact that AIPAC, in supporting military action, was endangering the lives of Syrian Christians, whom he believes are better off under the Assad regime. “Shoot, I’d be thrilled if Christians—I’m talking about many of our Evangelical friends—cared as much about their fellow Mideast Christians as they care about Israelis,” Dreher wrote.

Such concern for the plight of Christian minorities in the Middle East is touching, but also a tad disingenuous, as the American Conservative has never shown much sympathy for the fate of those Christian communities, from Nigeria to Pakistan, who suffer from Islamist atrocities. When you bring Israel into the equation, however, the magazine suddenly finds its voice.

The combined message here is clear: Syria is Iraq Redux, another “endless war” which America is being pushed into by a shadowy Jewish cabal. And that message neatly bolsters the thesis of the academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the high priests of the “Blame-the-Israel-Lobby” movement that the activities of pro-Israel organizations amount to bad news from America.

Critics of these conspiracy theories have rightly pointed out the anti-Semitic pedigree on display here. The idea that Jews are powerful enough to manipulate their governments from behind the scenes is a staple of modern anti-Semitism. Still, let’s for a moment take the Israel Lobby thesis on its own merits, and temporarily ignore the charge of anti-Semitism. Is the charge that the “Lobby” is the real authority when it comes to U.S. foreign policy empirically verifiable?

My answer to this question is a resounding no. In fact, I would go further. What the latest developments on Syria demonstrate is that rather than the “Lobby” running the Administration, it is the Administration that runs the “Lobby.”

Before last week, AIPAC, along with the mainstream Jewish advocacy organizations, had been largely silent on the atrocities taking place in Syria. In that sense, they are no different from the other influential groups and individuals who are either undecided on the issue of a limited military operation, or firmly opposed to it. It’s no secret that Obama faces a rough ride in Congress, especially as some of his traditional supporters, like the MoveOn.org PAC, are actively opposing any intervention in Syria. Similarly, it’s also true that the Jewish left is uncomfortable with the prospect of taking on the bestial Assad regime; J Street, a group which once ludicrously claimed to be Obama’s “blocking back” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict issue, has deserted the president over Syria.

Rather than pushing for war, then, AIPAC and similar groups have been drafted in at the last minute to boost support for a President who is looking dangerously isolated. The irony of an Administration, which includes Chuck Hagel, the defense secretary who famously bemoaned AIPAC’s influence, running to these same organizations to secure backing shouldn’t be lost on anyone. Even so, away from the political point scoring, what this shows is that the influence of pro-Israel groups is something this Administration values. Equally—and this is key—these groups will wield that influence when the Administration requests them to do so.

Importantly, this is not the first time that the Administration has turned to the “Lobby” for support on Middle East-related matters. Part of the reason that Secretary of State John Kerry was able to galvanize support and publicity for his efforts to renew the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was that he turned to American Jews, whose principal organizations dutifully trumpeted his message. The fact that Kerry’s diplomacy has yielded few results isn’t really his fault, nor is it the fault of American Jews. The stasis on the Israeli-Palestinian front is the consequence—as it always has been—of rejectionism among the Palestinians, whose leaders remain distinctly queasy about doing anything that might smack of accepting Israel’s legitimacy.

Any worry about all of this on the part of American Jewish organizations should relate not to accusations of outsize influence, but of association with failure. So far, Israel has little to show for its decision, under pressure from the Americans, to release 26 brutal Palestinian terrorists ahead of the talks. The Syrian intervention proposal is mired in confusion, because of widespread concern that an American-led operation will be too little, too late; the Administration's declaration that it does not intend to remove Assad from power hardly strikes fear into the hearts of those who shower innocent men, women and children with chemical weapons.

Ben Cohen

If the Obama Administration can be confident of anything, it is that its American Jewish partners will never go so far as to openly criticize the president. Far from being the war-crazed cabal that is depicted in the imaginations of conspiracy theorists, the “Israel Lobby” is in reality an oasis of calm reliability for a president who may just be on the cusp of his biggest foreign policy failure.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

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Posted on September 9, 2013 and filed under Opinion, Israel, World, U.S..