I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Openly debating U.S. involvement in Israel's war

The bluntness and candor which characterized the war cries of neoconservatives this weekend was quite striking. Newt Gingrich declared that "World War III" has begun and chided the meek, war-averse Bush administration for "not responding fast enough" because "we don’t have the right attitude." The tough, resolute guys at National Review -- showing the gruff Churchillian bravery that is the hallmark of all Great Warriors -- courageously debated whether we should refer to this conflict as World War III or World War IV. And although the U.S. hasn't yet involved itself in a direct military way in this conflict, the administration is not shy about the fact that not only does it intend to do nothing to stop it, it is willing to take active steps to ensure its continuance.

But the most audacious argument for new and expanded war was advanced on Sunday by Bill Kristol, on Fox News, where he said this:

And indeed, this is a great opportunity. I think our weakness, unfortunately, invited this aggression, but this aggression is a great opportunity to begin resuming the offensive against the terrorist groups. Israel is fighting four of our five enemies in the Middle East, in a sense. Iran, Syria, sponsors of terror; Hezbollah and Hamas. Al Qaeda doesn’t seem to be involved. We have to take care of them in Iraq. This is an opportunity to begin to reverse the unfortunate direction of the last six to nine months and get the terrorists and the jihadists back on the defensive.

So, "Israel is fighting four of our five enemies in the Middle East" -- the only small exception being Al-Qaeda, which, as Cenk Uygur pointed out in this excellent post, happens to be the only group which actually attacked us. As I noted on Saturday, Kristol is now arguing that the Israeli war is really "our war," and on Sunday he took that a step further by claiming that groups devoted exclusively to fighting Israel are somehow also among our "five enemies in the Middle East." (Interestingly, Kristol doesn't appear to count among our five Middle Eastern enemies the insurgents whom we are actually fighting in Iraq; he only counts as our enemies those whom Israel is currently attacking or threatening to attack).

In what conceivable way are Hamas and Hezbollah enemies of the United States? They are unquestionably enemies of Israel, but what grounds exist even for arguing that they are our enemies? And while Syria undoubtedly is no fan of the U.S., what actions has it engaged in that would make it a threat to the U.S. even remotely sufficient to wage war on it? Plainly, Kristol, like so many neoconservatives, recognizes no difference of any kind between U.S. and Israeli interests, and is thus salivating at the opportunity to finally induce the U.S. to wage war on Israel's enemies.

For that reason, I think this article in this weekend's Washington Post is groundbreaking and critically important. It extensively and fairly addresses a question which most mainstream media outlets have fearfully avoided -- namely, the effect of the domestic Israeli lobby on U.S. foreign policy. With our military action in Iraq, that question was declared all but off limits, as war advocates, from the President on down, claimed that there was something malignant about questioning to what extent our urgent need to get rid of Saddam Hussein was influenced by a desire to bolster Israeli, rather than American, security.

George Bush himself instructed us that discussions of the role Israel plays in our Middle East policy is off limits when he told us that we must engage only in responsible debate over Iraq, not irresponsible debate, which he defined to include discussions of the extent to which a desire to protect Israel (or a desire to preserve oil supplies) influenced our invasion of Iraq:

Yet we must remember there is a difference between responsible and irresponsible debate -- and it's even more important to conduct this debate responsibly when American troops are risking their lives overseas.

The American people know the difference between responsible and irresponsible debate when they see it. They know the difference between honest critics who question the way the war is being prosecuted and partisan critics who claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil, or because of Israel, or because we misled the American people. And they know the difference between a loyal opposition that points out what is wrong, and defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right.

And consistent with the Commander-in-Chief's decree, anyone who has argued that a desire to protect Israeli interests plays too large of a role in our foreign policy has been subjected to some of the most vicious and relentless smears. Ask Juan Cole about that, or John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Those tactics have, as intended, prevented a substantive debate on this question, as most people have feared even approaching the topic.

But that tactic isn't likely to work any longer. If neoconservatives are now going to argue openly and explicitly that we should intervene in this war because we have to fight with Israel against our common Islamic opponents, surely it now must be considered "responsible debate" to question to what extent the U.S.'s willingness to act in the Middle East is motivated by an excessive or unwise commitment to Israeli security. Bill Kristol and friends are again advocating an extraordinary measure -- that the U.S. join Israel in this war. A full and open debate on that topic is vital.

It is undoubtedly true that some people who object to what they claim ís Israel's excessive influence over American actions, or who argue that Israel is to blame for all of the conflict in the Middle East, are acting with less than noble sentiments (or worse), just as it is the case that some who urge greater American aggression in the Middle East are doing so out of loyalty to Israeli interests far more than to American interests.

But it is also the case that there are many who object to excessive Israeli allegiance because they believe in perfectly good faith that it is harmful to American interests or otherwise immoral, just as there are many people who believe in good faith that it really is in America's interests to stand by Israel because it is a close and democratic ally in the Middle East. The existence of extremists in a debate, or the fact that some on both sides are motivated by bad faith, hardly means the debate should be off-limits. And this debate is far too important to allow smear tactics and manipulative accusations of anti-semitism to prevent its full and vigorous airing.

Many people are arguing now that the influence of neoconservatives is less than what is was and so, too, is the administration's appetite for more war. Perhaps. But history is suffuse with examples of countries which found themselves in new wars or escalated wars not because they chose to be, but because circumstances, or miscalculation, or uncontrollable hostilities, dragged them into it.

We have 140,000 soldiers sitting in the center of the Middle East, and we have had multiple skirmishes in the past with both the Syrians and Iranians as a result of our activities in Iraq. In a climate where the administration's most prominent and loyal followers are urging that we wage war on those two countries, and with the administration itself at least sounding as though they are tempted by the idea, the likelihood of unintentional escalation, or reckless expansion of our war, is extremely high. If that is really a risk which our country wants to take after a full and open debate on the topic, so be it.

But the last thing that ought to happen is a repeat of our invasion of Iraq, where we began an extremely risky and misguided war against a country that wasn't threatening us without meaningful media scrutiny and therefore without a meaningful debate. The debate was not meaningful because objections to the war were stigmatized as seditious or even anti-semitic. That is a mistake that the U.S. cannot afford to make again.

The fact that the administration does not intend to wage war on Iran and/or Syria doesn't mean that such a war won't occur. And if the administration has not committed itself yet to causing such a war, they sure don't appear to be shying away from it either. They surely know full well that they are playing with gasoline near a raging fire, and they appear to be indifferent to the risks, if not actively seeking them. Why that is the case, and whether it is wise, must be topics that are fully open to examination.

UPDATE: Arthur Silber has some trenchant observations about how these debate-squelching tactics work in this context.

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