There is a general perception that the rush to war with Iran has somewhat abated. This perception is best expressed in the widely publicized comments from neoconservative pundits suggesting that the current approach to bridling Tehran’s ambitions should be a rigorous program of sanctions to isolate President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his government.
The apparent shift in course should be greeted with relief by all those who want to avoid yet another preemptive conflict, but assurances from neoconservatives that war is no longer the preferred option for dealing with Iran should be viewed cautiously and even as disinformation intended to defuse opposition. Today’s denials of war planning relating to Iran are unfortunately reminiscent of the early 2003 pledges to pursue diplomacy that the White House made while covertly completing preparations to invade Iraq.
If the decision is made to stage an attack on Iran, responsibility will ultimately rest with the Great Decider in the White House. But the enablers for that decision will be in the Democratic Party, which ironically swept to victory in both houses of Congress in November 2006 due to popular disapproval of the conflict in Iraq. That war with Iran would have catastrophic consequences for the United States should be evident to everyone, particularly after the errors in judgment and execution that have produced today’s Iraq and Afghanistan nightmares. That the buildup of forces in the Persian Gulf in and of itself could easily trigger a conflict, either by accident or by design, has also become clear, particularly in light of the seizure of 15 British marines and sailors on March 23. A slightly more trigger-happy response, which would have been likely if American rather than British troops had been involved, could easily have resulted in a shooting war.
Historically, the Democratic Party has been the party of war in the United States, having actively maneuvered to involve the U.S. in the First World War, Second World War, Korea, and Vietnam in spite of considerable popular support for isolationism or nonintervention, particularly among Republicans. That continues to be the case in spite of the White House’s unfortunate adoption of the neoconservative formula for world domination, which is derived from the neocons’ Trotskyite and Straussian roots rather than from any genuine, conservative Republican tradition. While the ever mutable Mitt Romney and other Republican presidential candidates are striking the obligatory hard-line poses in front of Israeli audiences and groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), most Republican congressmen do not see Iran as a front-burner issue and would be extremely reluctant to consider a military option. That is not necessarily true of the Democrats.
Our Iran policy is heavily influenced by the Israel lobby, and the Democrats have long been closely linked to Israel for a number of reasons. Even in the last election, when the Republicans made major efforts to woo Jewish voters, three-quarters voted Democratic. According to a Jan. 26 article in The Forward, “money from Jewish donors constitutes about half the donations given to national Democratic candidates.” And as Matthew Yglesias has pointed out, “most major American Jewish organizations cater to the views of extremely wealthy major donors whose political views [on Israel] are well to the right of the bulk of American Jews, one of the most liberal ethnic groups in the country.” Crossing these organizations can be detrimental to one’s political career. The experiences of President George H. W. Bush, Senators William Fulbright and Chuck Percy, and Representatives Paul Findley, Pete McCloskey, and Cynthia McKinney demonstrate that it is dangerous to trifle with the Israeli lobby.
AIPAC is undeniably the most powerful single-issue lobbying group in Washington. At its just concluded convention, 6,000 attendees watched a parade of senior government officials and leading politicians pledge their uncritical support for Israel. Speakers included Vice President Dick Cheney, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and House Minority Leader John Boehner, as well as an array of presidential candidates. Much has been made of the pressure AIPAC successfully exerted to drop a clause in the recent defense appropriation bill for Iraq and Afghanistan prohibiting an attack on Iran without congressional approval. One Democratic congressman, Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, even promised prior to any debate on the matter that the offensive language would be removed. The elimination of that clause erased the one possible impediment to White House plans to bomb the Islamic Republic. Pelosi, who is clearly aware of the overwhelming antiwar sentiment of the Democratic Party base and who wished to include the prohibition on expanded military action, was booed by the AIPAC audience when she criticized the conduct of the war in Iraq. Getting the message very clearly, she bowed to AIPAC’s force majeure and quickly supported the deletion of any reference to Iran in the pending legislation.
Pelosi’s capitulation was in deference to perceived Israeli concerns. Congressman Gary Ackerman of New York commented that unwillingness to be “taking things off the table” vis-à-vis Israel’s security was the reason for the decision, especially “if you’re trying to modify their behavior and normalize it in a civilized way.” Ackerman’s belief that the fruits of civilization might best be delivered by a (possibly nuclear) first strike unfortunately empowers the White House and gives it an absolute green light to attack Tehran, which he clearly understands. Rep. Shelley Berkley of Nevada, citing “widespread fear in Israel about Iran,” went even further, suggesting somewhat improbably that the threat of an impromptu attack on Iran is the “most important negotiating tool that the U.S. has.”
Make no mistake, even though some Democrats are currently talking up softer options, AIPAC’s 2006 convention made clear that it would like to see the United States destroy Iran’s nuclear program to enhance Israel’s security. The Israeli government has repeatedly made the same point, sometimes in very blunt terms, and has openly mobilized its resources in the U.S. government and the media to that end. The many Democratic congressmen who identify strongly with Israel apparently agree. Many must have reservations about supporting the hard right-wing approach espoused by recent Israeli governments, while others must appreciate the suffering of the Palestinians, but if they are troubled they prefer to say nothing. If there is a conspiracy, it is frequently a conspiracy of silence.
The dominance of AIPAC, with its consistent hard line in support of the Israeli government no matter what it does, is currently being challenged by a number of liberal Jews, including billionaire investor George Soros. Both Jewish members of the Democratic Party in Congress and the mostly non-Jewish Democratic Party leadership line up with the hard-line pro-Israel groups more than does the average American Jewish voter. Polls suggest that most American Jews by a considerable margin do not support the current war in Iraq and would not support an attack on Iran. Jewish organizations are, however, differently disposed, and groups like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations support an aggressive American foreign policy on behalf of Israel, though they are careful to couch their support in terms of America’s national interests. These organizations are also in the forefront of the efforts to suppress the increasing criticism of the Israeli Lobby and Israeli government policies, frequently labeling any critic, from academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt to former president Jimmy Carter, anti-Semites.
Many Democratic politicians take their policy positions straight from AIPAC briefings, repeatedly stressing that the military option “must remain on the table” vis-à-vis Iran, which has virtually become a mantra. Many openly support creating a larger military, a sure indication of intent to wage further wars of choice against the Muslim world. Significantly, they also accept the Israeli assertion that Iran’s declared and inspected development of nuclear energy already constitutes a secret nuclear weapons program, providing a convenient casus belli for a first strike. There is irony in Israel’s outrage, since Tel Aviv already has a nuclear arsenal and has refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty while Iran is a signatory and has no weapons.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said “the greatest threat to Israel’s right to exist now comes from Iran” and that “America’s commitment to the safety and security of the State of Israel is unwavering,” while House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has called a nuclear Iran “unacceptable.” Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has declared that the U.S. attack on Iraq was directed against the “wrong enemy.” Presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton says “Iran is a danger to Israel” and “we must not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.” Lest there be any confusion, she adds, “The security and freedom of Israel must be decisive and remain at the core of any American approach to the Middle East.” John Edwards, addressing an Israeli audience, was most direct and almost neoconservative in his rhetoric: “Iran threatens the security of Israel and the entire world. Let me be clear: Under no circumstances can Iran be allowed to have nuclear weapons.” Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, backpedaling from some apparently sincere expressions of sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians, attempted to make amends by telling an AIPAC gathering in Chicago on March 2 that he has a “total commitment” to Israel. On March 12, addressing an AIPAC group in Washington, he added that “Iran is a genuine threat to both Israel and the United States” and stated his view that the use of force should not be ruled out to disarm it. Even reliably liberal Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who had the good sense to vote against both the Iraq war authorization and the PATRIOT Act, has said that the U.S. “cannot tolerate” a nuclear Iran.
It is possible to continue indefinitely citing emotion-laden, devoid-of-fact defenses of Israel and condemnations of Muslims voiced by America’s Democratic legislators, some of whom, sad to report, might actually believe what they are saying. Some commentary is particularly inflammatory, and the mainstream media, quick to report Muslim threats against Israel, has generally failed to report the invective emanating from America’s own Congress. The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Lantos has stated somewhat hyperbolically that in Iran “the world’s chief terrorist state will soon possess the greatest weapon of terrorism ever created,” adding that it is “now or never” to stop them, which is presumably a call to war.
Unless they are all lying, which is certainly a possibility, it is evident that the nominally antiwar Democratic leadership is willing to go to war with Iran to disarm it. Until the Democrats come to grips with the malignancy and impracticality of their own view of the Middle East and jettison their blind endorsement of Israel and its extremist policies, there can be no peace anywhere. Indeed, given the posturing of the Democratic Party and its firm commitment to Israel, an endless cycle of war scarcely distinguishable from neoconservative fantasies is inevitable. After Iran, Syria will be next, then Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt. America is still powerful enough to make all of that happen, though it is clear that it will not be able to glue the pieces back together again once the fighting is over. Such an outcome would not bring any real security to Israel, and it certainly would not be good for the United States.