In the second century B.C., Cato the Elder, a Roman Senator, would end every speech he made with the admonition "Delenda Est Carthago," meaning that the city of Carthage, Rome’s perennial rival, must be destroyed. Among other claims, the Romans accused the Carthaginians of engaging in human sacrifice to their god Ba’al Hammon, something that one might describe as the "red line" of that era as Greco-Roman culture abhorred the practice and condemned those who engaged in it. Even though Rome dominated the Mediterranean and Carthage was in decline, Cato believed that one day the ancient resentments would again rise to the surface and a resurgent Carthage would discover a new Hannibal and take revenge. In other words, the survival of Carthage was seen as a threat to the continued existence of the Roman Republic. Cato’s argument was convincing enough to many Romans that it resulted in the Third Punic War in which Carthage was indeed destroyed.
I mention Rome and Carthage to illustrate the fact that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to making compelling arguments about what today might be termed national security. There is in today’s world no Carthage to serve as a counterpoint to America’s new Rome, but in a nation where corruption enabled by the art of lobbying has become so refined that interest groups are able to dominate the political discourse the real enemy is internal. It is plausible to argue that the nation’s legislature is only marginally answerable to the citizens that have elected it. This has nowhere been more evident than in the still ongoing debate over America going to war against Syria, which the White House intends to initiate to establish its "credibility" in spite of the clear evidence that Damascus poses no actual threat to the United States or its interests. Even if one considers a government killing its own citizens as humanitarian grounds for outside military intervention, which I do not, the White House has failed to produce any compelling evidence that the Syrian government actually used chemical weapons against its own people. Ordinary American citizens have responded to the mess of pottage they have been served by writing and calling their congressmen and, overwhelmingly, saying "no." Even normally bellicose evangelical Christians are surprisingly nearly two to one opposed. But still congress dithers.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has weighed into the debate big time, unleashing hundreds of its activists on Capitol Hill, buttonholing congressmen and staffers alike. This is how it works according to a congressional staffer: "First come the phone calls from constituents who are AIPAC members. They know the Congressman and are nice and friendly and just tell him, or whichever staffer the constituent knows, just how important this vote is to him and his friends back in the district. Then the donors call. The folks who have hosted fundraisers. They are usually not only from the district but from New York or LA or Chicago. They repeat the message: this vote is very important. Contrary to what you might expect, they do not mention campaign money. They don’t have to. Because these callers are people who only know the Congressman through their checks, the threat not to write any more of them is implicit. Like the constituents, the donors are using AIPAC talking points which are simple and forceful. You can argue with them but they keep going back to the script… Then there are the AIPAC lobbyists, the professional staffers. They come in, with or without appointments. If the Congressman is in, they expect to see him immediately. If not, they will see a staffer. If they don’t like what they hear, they will keep coming back. They are very aggressive, no other lobby comes close. They expect to see the Member, not mere staff. Then there are the emails driven by the AIPAC website…and then the ‘Dear Colleague’ letters from Jewish House members saying how important the vote is for Israel and America. They also will buttonhole the Members on the House floor… And, truth be told, all the senior Jewish Members of the House are tight with AIPAC. Also, the two biggest AIPAC enforcers, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and his Democratic counterpart, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, are fierce AIPAC partisans, and they make sure to seek out Members on the floor to tell them how they must vote. On anything related to Israel, they speak in one voice: AIPAC’s. Obviously, there is no counterpart to this on the antiwar side. No anti-AIPAC to speak of. AIPAC owns this issue. It gets what it wants."
AIPAC carefully avoided naming Israel in its statement of support for Obama even though it prides itself on being America’s pro-Israel lobby, presumably because it wishes to avoid Syria being labeled as Israel’s war if the bombing turns out badly. Which it will. AIPAC cares nothing for the fate of Syrian civilians but it does fear that failing to attack Damascus could possibly strengthen noninterventionist sentiment when it comes time to confront Iran, which it regards as Israel’s principal enemy. Its statement asserts "America’s allies and adversaries are closely watching the outcome of this momentous vote. This critical decision comes at a time when Iran is racing toward obtaining nuclear capability. Failure to approve this resolution would weaken our country’s credibility to prevent the use and proliferation of unconventional weapons and thereby greatly endanger our country’s security and interests and those of our regional allies." The White House, for its part, is increasingly playing the Israel card to gain support, with the Israeli media even reporting that Obama has asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene directly in lobbying American Jews to support an attack.
So AIPAC and the other components of the Israel Lobby, which are marching in lock step on this issue, are basically advocating a series of wars in which the United States will do the fighting and dying to make the world safe for Israel. They have chosen to go on the offensive over the issue of Syria to head off any developing peace agenda. Alan Dershowitz, noted Israel-firster from the world of academia, makes the argument in his usual obtuse fashion: "Congress should first authorize the president to keep his commitment with regard to Syria. Then it should authorize the president to keep his far more important commitment with regard to the red line against Iran. This dual congressional action will strengthen America’s position in the world…" Dennis Ross, who until quite recently exploited a series of top level U.S. government posts to shamelessly promote Israeli interests, spoke recently before a gathering of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), observing several times that approval of an attack on Syria would legitimize taking similar action against Iran in the future. Ross’s open advocacy for the Jewish state while in government earned him the sobriquet of "Israel’s lawyer" and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once testily interrupted him at a meeting, telling him that when the Likud position was needed they would call on him. Unfortunately, Ross was not and is not unique in US government circles when it comes to dealing with the Middle East.
If congress eventually approves the Obama program, now temporarily on hold, it will be because it fears AIPAC more than it does the voters in this country. That is not to say that there are not other constituencies that want to attack Syria for other reasons, but the critical component that will ultimately tip the scales towards war is the influence wielded by AIPAC. Which means that if Syria is actually attacked by the United States it will and should rightly be regarded as AIPAC’s war, a conflict which could also be fairly described as a victory of a foreign interest group over the American people.
AIPAC operates with a budget exceeding $50 million and has several hundred full time staff. Let there be no mistake about what the organization is and what it stands for: it wants the United States to start what almost certainly would quickly escalate into a major war on behalf of another country as a prelude to yet another war against yet another Middle Eastern country. AIPAC is a tax exempt foundation which claims to be educational, though anyone on Capitol Hill would be able to testify that it is anything but. President John F. Kennedy, recognizing the danger it posed, tried to get it listed by the Treasury Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act but was killed before he could complete the process. AIPAC does indeed have the right to organize and express any view that it sees fit but it should not be able to do so on the taxpayer’s dime as an exempt organization and it should be clearly understood that it is an organization that exists to support its own perception of Israeli interests first and foremost. Congressmen should be able to tell AIPAC lobbyists to go away without fear of reprisals.
If the United States is ever again to be free of the danger posed by well-funded special interests like AIPAC it must first recognize that it has a problem and then take steps to find a remedy. To be sure powerful interests will strike back hard, but a good first step to demonstrate seriousness would be for congress to vote against President Obama’s plan to attack Syria should it be brought to the floor in the next several weeks. It would be a major defeat for AIPAC and it could substantially shift perceptions in the United States, opening the door to a freer discussion of the interventionist foreign policy that has produced so many ills over the past twelve years. Putting the AIPAC genie back in the bottle would do just that, removing at a stroke the Israeli stranglehold on US policy in the Middle East and holding the White House accountable every time it seeks to initiate a war of choice.