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Newsflash: AIPAC (probably) isn’t pushing for an attack on Iran

I have read even more drivel than usual about AIPAC in the blogosphere these days, and thought I would explain a few things to those who have never attended an AIPAC Policy Conference.

First of all, AIPAC does not appear to be trying to prod the U.S. to bomb Iran. If it is, I have not seen any credible evidence, just a lot of inferential yammering by those whose stock-in-trade is to promote the notion that the so-called “Lobby” is a bunch of bellicose fifth columnists.

Here, for example, is Justin Raimondo, an articulate libertarian whose Antiwar.com is an increasingly popular source for all things anti-Israel and anti-AIPAC: “Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s visit to the U.S. is part of a concerted effort, by the Israeli government and its American lobbyists, to convince U.S. lawmakers – and, most of all, President George W. Bush – that the time to attack Iran is now.”

At last week’s Policy Conference, attendees got a distinctly different impression. Sure, there was obligatory tough talk about the perils of a nuclearized Iran. Sure, anyone who asserted or hinted that the military option should remain on the table could count on applause in the small seminars and the large plenary sessions. Of course the notion of unconditional dialogue with Iran was an object of scorn.

And, yes, the action agenda pushed for tightened sanctions against Iran. AIPAC called for its grassroots troops to descend on Congress and urge passage of the Iran Counterproliferation Act in the Senate, and to promote a slightly tougher, non-binding resolution from Reps. Gary Ackerman and Mike Pence. But, as described by Ron Kampeas of JTA, one of the smartest reporters in Washington:

The language of the [Ackerman-Pence] resolution is sensitive to the political realities of a presidential campaign that has made the possibility of war against Iran a partisan issue: It explicitly counts out military action — a point hammered home in the AIPAC talking points.

“The resolution specifically states that nothing in the resolution shall be construed to be an authorization for military action,” the sheet says. “In fact, the sanctions called for in H. Con. Res. 362 are the best way to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability by avoiding military action.”

Additionally, the action part of the resolution opens by declaring “that preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, through all appropriate economic, political, and diplomatic means is vital to the national security interests of the United States and must be dealt with urgently.”

Notably absent from AIPAC’s talking points is any mention of military force — a prospect that spooks Democrats and would discomfit an organization that prides itself on its bipartisanship. [emphasiis added by DF]

Kampeas is spot on. I suspect a large part of the membership would have been upset by overt war-mongering. I know this is a rather inconvenient truth. Painting the AIPACers with a broad brush as a dangerous, evil band of Likud supporters and war-hungry “neocons” makes it much easier for those who oppose the group to mobilize, and to write angry op-eds and blog posts filled with reckless generalizations that ignore complex, institutional truths. Mea culpa: I’ve written a few of those myself.

Dismissing AIPAC as nothing but a support group or cheering section for Dick Cheney and Richard Perle feeds the hunger of those on the far left and far right for a bogeyman, an organization that can serve, along with Israel itself, as a kind of totemic hate object, a repository of all that is wrong. I am trying to write a book about the conventional Israel lobby and my task would be much easier if AIPAC could be summed up so glibly. But I’m afraid it can’t.

The inconvenient truth is that many of its members and board members are centrist Democrats; they are politically moderate, at least by American standards. They want the U.S. to keep Israel strong by giving it a qualitative military edge because they believe Israel’s neighbors still want to destroy it. They are deeply worried about Iran and the dangers they believe it poses to Israel and to the U.S., especially to American troops in Iraq, But they are not irresponsibly trigger happy. Even Philip Weiss, a hero of the cabal-watchers, was initially a bit perplexed when, in the first policy conference he attended, he found himself rubbing shoulders with attendees and listening to speakers who were moderate, temperate and as desirious of peace as he is (although they don’t care as much about Palestinian suffering or Palestinian rights as he does).

My friend and fellow Ameinu board member Judy Gelman, described the AIPACers in an email to the organization’s leadership:

Who goes to AIPAC? This year’s conference had over 7500 participants, about 1200 of who were students. The attendees also included many large congregational groups. I don’t know how many rabbis brought congregants but 4 rabbis were acknowledged as having brought more than 100 congregants with them. Two of these congregants were large Conservative shuls from LA, one of which (Valley Beth Shalom) had over 200 participants (the other was Sinai Temple). Stephen Wise Synagogue from NY (also Conservative) was one of the others. So the participants at the Policy Conference are not a group of wild-eyed reactionaries. Kippot are rare and tzitzit almost completely absent.

It is pretty much the people you would be sitting next to at Holy Holidays at a Conservative shul. Like most Jews, these are largely Democrats–not the most liberal Democrats, but still Democrats and mostly from NY, CA, Chicago, Philly, Southern Florida, but also from the smaller Jewish communities like Tulsa, Salt Lake City and Orlando. From these smaller communities, it is not uncommon for AIPAC activists to overlap heavily with the Federation and local congregational leadership. AIPAC gives these people (mostly people of considerable wealth) a way to connect to Israel politically, and also to connect with their local politicians on behalf of Israel. What AIPAC “sells” them is a way to be informed about Israel and a way to be involved for Israel.

She’s right. Most of them are not “neocons.” They are just very worried about Israel. They come to these conferences expecting guidance and instruction about how they –and America– can help to keep it safe. It’s not much more complicated than that. What’s more, although they were urged to suppress partisan poltical instincts, many of them cheered for Obama not only because they were glad he expressed support for Israel; they also cheered for him because they were Democrats and, like the rest of us, want an end to the Republican reign of error.

Of course, there are also vocal, irrepressible militarists in that organization. In a speech to the plenary on Monday night, Executive Director Howard Kohr gave, I think, some clues about the pressures on him from that wing of AIPAC. After rattling off the many dangers posed by Iran and the need to sanction it, he said:

Now, I have spoken to you and I know you feel a real sense of frustration. Of impatience. You have asked me, from New York and Los Angeles, what more can we do? You wonder, is there still time for our efforts to work?

My friends, I understand your concern.

But I want to make the case to you today that the path of political and economic sanctions is still the best immediate option. There is still time..to persuade Iran through sanctions that its leader cannot vow to wipe Israel off the map. It cannot promise to visit destruction on Israel, and escape the consequences of its actions…My friends, we cannot lose our determination to stay on this path –together we must make it clear that Iran must change its behavior.

He could have gone much further. He could have revved up the crowd to show the attentive world that these American Jews were serious about doing whatever was necessary to take out Iran’s nuclear capability. Instead, he urged the AIPACers to trod what was, at least in their Manichean version of reality, a middle path.

I still think they are wrong, these AIPACers, about a good many things. They are wrong to ratchet up tensions with Iran and favor all sticks and no carrots. They have been wrong about Draconian restrictions on aid to the Palestinian Authority and will continue to be wrong in their opposition to evenhanded American diplomacy in the Middle East. I still think an alternative political bloc, a lobby for the rest of us that encourages a new American course in the Middle East, is necessary. The stony, uncomfortable silence that greeted Sec. of State Rice when she dared to refer to the “daily humiliations” suffered by Palestinians is reason enough to develop that alternative.

But if we want to change the current, conventional Israel lobby, we need to understand how it actually works and who is in it, not create straw men and straw women.

12 thoughts on “Newsflash: AIPAC (probably) isn’t pushing for an attack on Iran

  1. I only attended one conference, in 1992. It was as you described. When a Democratic speaker mentioned women’s right to choose people cheered.

    I felt bad about that, even though I totally support legalized abortion, because I saw some nuns in attendance. I wondered how they felt.

    When I attended in 1992 I think that only about 2200 attended, Now it is three times that. Since the Jewish American population has not tripled since 92 (It has barely gone up at all) I think that AIPAC is becoming increasingly effective at mobilizing American supporters of Israel.

  2. I hope you’re right. Despite all your reassurances, I don’t trust those people as far as I can throw ten pianos, as my bubbie used to say. Wasn’t there just a little bit too much enthusiasm for McCain, for your tastes?

  3. Jonathan,
    Most of the new people you saw–or a good share of them–were probably not Jews. As Evangelicals have grown more influential within the Republican Party AIPAC has upped efforts to court them. This is partly to replace liberal Jews who have left as newer more-dovish alternatives such as Brit Tzedek, APN, and MeretzUSA have opened up to them. In 1995 I served as an intern at AIPAC–there was no Brit Tzedek at the time and APN and MeretzUSA were mainly fundraising branches for their Israeli parents.

    Dan,
    I have become convinced that one of the main motivations for the Iranian leadership’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability is to provoke a confrontation with the West–especially the U.S. and Israel–over an issue that their population will support them on. As most of the Iranian population has been born since the 1979 revolution and has no memories of the Pahlavi regime, support for the regime has dropped to record low levels. After Israel, Iran has the highest levels of support for America among the population in the Middle East. The Iranian regime is now in the stage that China was in in the mid-1960s or the USSR in the 1960s and 1970s. Under Mao Tse Tung the Chinese leadership started the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 in order to shake up the bureaucracy and to indoctrinate a new generation of revolutionaries. The CR ended only with the death of Mao and a “counterrevolution” by Deng Tsao Ping and his supporters. The Soviet leadership under Brezhnev never tried anything similar and the country stagnated.

    Most Iranians believe that Iran as an ancient country with a distinguished civilization has as much right to nuclear technology–even nuclear weapons–as the existing nuclear powers, especially the newer ones such as Israel, India, and Pakistan. This issue raises basic nationalistic and even religious feelings among the population. The optimum situation for the leadership would be to provoke an Israeli or American military attack on its nuclear facilities, which are too numerous and dispersed to be easily taken out like Iraq’s Osirak reactor was in 1981. Less suitable but still acceptable is a situation in which either America is split from Europe over the issue or in which severe sanctions cuts off Iran from outside contact, at least with the West. Remember that during the CR China voluntarily cut off all diplomatic contact with the West.

    The problem with Iranian nukes isn’t so much that Tehran will attempt to use them directly against Israel–the Iranian leadership is not suicidal. Rather it is twofold: First, that it will embolden Tehran to escalate its revolutionary activities in the region. Second, a nuclear Iran will trigger other nuclear programs among its Arab neighbors such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and eventually Iraq. This is the n+1 problem that nuclear proliferation theorists have written about for decades.

    Like the skilled realpolitik practioneers that they are, the Iranian mullahs have forced the West to chose between allowing Tehran to have nukes or provoking a confrontation that serves the regime’s interests–its a win-win situation for them.

  4. On McCain,
    I visit my elderly mother in South Florida regularly. We talk politics.

    She recently saw a speech by McCain and said, “Israel can trust this guy”. She saw a speech by Obama and said “I like what he says, but people say that he doesn’t mean it.”

    And, my response was, “I am much more confident that Obama will stand by Israel than McCain will, regardless of how confident he sounds now. And, I think that McCain’s current sabre-rattling is a long-term disaster for Israel, skill-less, whereas even Obama’s ‘inexperience’ is far more skillful in range of options and prospectively intelligent use of options.”

    On Iran,

    Iran itself is a danger. It is a theocracy, occassionally a near dictatorship in its governance. (Khoemeni was not really accountable to any other person, or even collectivity of diverse clerics.) It has operated as a Shia theo-ideological agency in the recent past, and is currently pursuing a precipice strategy.

    The dangers of such a force in the region are what happens when communications break down, when some power interprets an action differently than they “intended”, or self-deceptively hoped they could get away with.

    And its not just Israel that is sensitive to the machinations. Sunni powers, Pakistan, India, even China (though China seems to have found a way to coopt or deflect potential conflicts).

    At some point, not so far into the future, Iran’s oil wealth will both decline and be less relevant, and then they will be like North Korea, a state without anything to sustain itself, or to offer to the world, but only to threaten with.

    A smart dominant power will offer a path for a more civilized approach, to diminish the appeal of threat as a means to survive.

    That is the danger of a one-dimensional policy towards any regime. It fosters what it pretends to discourage.

  5. Tom,
    You wrote: “I have become convinced that one of the main motivations for the Iranian leadership’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability is to provoke a confrontation with the West–especially the U.S. and Israel–over an issue that their population will support them on.”

    Maybe so, but the Revolutionary Guards and their allies are also involved in an internal power struggle. It is a frightening political game.

    Also, I have read that their whacky President is a follower of an Imman in Qum who sincerely believes that the destruction of Israel will bring on the equivalent of their messiah, the “12th mahdi” (or maybe it’s the 13th) It is as if John Haggee were in charge of the joint Chiefs of Staff in the U.S. AIPAC may be taking the wrong path, but I don’t know what the right path is. Like Teddy, I don’t trust the people that Dan wrote about, but I also don’t trust that Brit Tzedek and J Street and all the other dovish groups (with whom I generally agree the Pales-Israeli conflict) know what they are talking about when it comes to Iran.

    That is why I am taking the day off and am going to take a long bath and read People Magazine.

  6. Rachel,
    The Iranian president doesn’t have much more power than the Israeli president. Under the Iranian system it is the unelected Supreme Leader who holds the real reins of power. So what Khamenei thinks is much more important than what Ahmedinajad thinks and says.

  7. Khameini may agree with Ahmadinejad. If he didn’t they would have reined him in.

    When the mullahs disagreed with Khatemi’s supporters they arrested them. Khatemi then sold out his imprisoned supporters and left office in disgrace, having been revealed as a front-man for the mullahs.

    If Ahmadinejad is similarly a front-man for the mullahs then the acquisition of nuclear weapons or weapons-grade uranium by these same mullahs is frightening.

  8. Jonathan,
    Mao was the power behind the Chinese revolution for much of its period. When China first acquired the A-bomb in 1964 Mao made very wild statements about China being able to lose half of its population and still be a major power. This was a form of deterrence meant to frighten the US and USSR away from attacking China. China has behaved relatively responsibly as a nuclear power. I predict that the same will be true of Iran. Iran, like China in the 1950s-70s, is an expansive revolutionary power attempting to export its revolution. But it has kept this export in the forms of propaganda, subversion, and arms exports. China did the same. Iranian acquisition of nuclear capability might even help Israel in the short-term by giving Sunni Arab countries an incentive to make common cause with it in order to possibly benefit from an Israeli nuclear umbrella of deterrence. If Iran develops such a capability, Israel will be the only non-Shiite nuclear power in the Mideast (Pakistan is in South Asia).

  9. If they are moderate or lean towards it, then why is so many belligerent bills and acts attributed to AIPAC or their initiative? If most of the members do not share the bellicose nature that is depicted by the left then why has there been no alleviation of Palestinian autonomy or even movement or even acknowledgement by any US senator etc.? Or can it really be worse than what we see today?

  10. Joshua,

    The (relative) moderates don’t control the organization. Far from it. They do what they are told. I guess I should have made that more clear. But the centrist Dems provide at least a little bit of a counterweight to the right wing true believers. Yes, it really could be worse than what we see today, alarming as that is to contemplate!

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