Obama vs. Reagan on AIPAC

Politico reports that President Barack Obama may attend the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) gathering in Washington, D.C. According to documents released last week by the National Archives, President Ronald Reagan had a more appropriate answer to invitations [.pdf] and party pressure to attend AIPAC’s gathering on May 15, 1988—”No, thanks” [.pdf]. Until Bill Clinton came along, no American president had ever accepted an invitation to speak at the Israel lobby’s annual confab while still in office. President Obama may this month reveal himself to be more pliable to Israeli, party, stealth PAC, and single-issue campaign contributors than many of his forebears. But what factors should a modern president consider before responding to an AIPAC invitation?

Reagan didn’t find AIPAC a fitting venue for a president. He clearly could have attended, but he chose not to. On March 25, 1988, Sen. Richard Lugar pitched [.pdf] the White House on behalf of AIPAC. “They are (of course) very anxious to have the president. These are sophisticated and informed folks (who know what RR has done for the relationship), and I am told the chief will get a tumultuous welcome….” House Republican Leader Robert H. Michel noted [.pdf] that “apparently he [Reagan] has never talked to them specifically, and this would be the last year for this one also.” Frederick J. Ryan, in charge of presidential appointments and scheduling at the White House, also urged attendance [.pdf]. “Despite the fact that the AIPAC has opposed various administration efforts to sell arms to Arab countries, this would be an event worth doing. … I have no doubt that he will be hailed by this most powerful of Washington lobbies as the truest friend of Israel ever to sit in the Oval Office.” When Reagan died, AIPAC reaffirmed this sentiment [.pdf], gushing about how a president so committed to American welfare reform placed Israel on the dole of U.S. taxpayers and consumers. “Under President Reagan, the U.S. Israel Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1985. … Additionally, under President Reagan’s leadership, America’s foreign assistance to Israel matured into the form it currently takes today. No longer composed of loans and grants, Israel today receives all of its economic and military assistance from the United States in grants.” Reagan ultimately tasked Max Green of his Office of Public Affairs to craft a presidential message for AIPAC in his stead. But why?

Reagan used his May 26, 1988, trip to a Moscow summit (after the AIPAC conference) as his official reason for denying the invitation to receive in person AIPAC’s Mort Silberman Democracy Award. Before 2009, few Americans (including White House staffers or Republican leaders) knew that Reagan was in fact talking a great deal to AIPAC through the most relevant channel —federal law-enforcement officials. Between 1984 and 1987 the FBI had a running investigation into how AIPAC and the Israeli Ministry of Economics stole sensitive U.S. documents outlining the Reagan administration’s position (and confidential business information) on a bilateral trade deal that today is widely regarded as a $10 billion per year industry-funded foreign aid program and America’s worst-performing bilateral trade agreement. FBI investigators clearly viewed the AIPAC espionage case as a component of the larger Jonathan Pollard/Lakam spy network disrupted late in 1985. Jonathan Pollard himself proved that Israel was no U.S. ally when it came to respecting sensitive intelligence flows. But today still fewer Americans understand how the seeds of Reagan’s single most traumatic crisis—the Iran-Contra affair—were sprouted in a Kenyan (of all places) hothouse of former Israeli arms smugglers, politicians, and intelligence operatives committed to keeping lucrative arms sales flowing to Iran at any cost, rather than freeing American hostages in Lebanon as promised to the anxious and fretting Reagan.

Though the soon to be out-of-office Reagan felt no need to thank AIPAC, a reelection-seeking Obama likely will. While Reagan strategically justified fortifying Israel as a bulwark against Soviet client states in the Middle East, that justification has faded away even as U.S. aid and unconditional diplomatic support spirals to new heights. New research by scholars such as Mearsheimer, Walt, and Pape reveals that bona fide U.S. efforts to extinguish global fires fueling terrorism soon uncover Israel as an American liability rather than an asset. By deferring to Israeli land grabs, military rampages, and diplomatic outrages and by mimicking Israel’s own defiance of the rule of law, the U.S. undermines its own interests and governance.

But this is the path Obama chose early on. By the 2008 Democratic National Convention, candidate Obama was already making illegal territorial concessions on behalf of the Palestinians by promising AIPAC Jerusalem would forever remain undivided and under Israeli control. By the time Obama entered office, his new Justice Department political appointees were carefully overseeing the reversal of the Bush administration’s well-warranted espionage indictments against two AIPAC employees. Today, the Obama administration is carefully weighing whether to free spy Jonathan Pollard from his life sentence—which Middle East analyst Jeffrey Blankfort asserts is Obama’s only ticket to safely campaign for reelection in Israel. Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi Yonah Metzger is even more blunt, saying that Obama can free Pollard or be a single-term president. The timing and conditions for the massive “free Pollard” campaign to win success are growing more favorable. It is highly unlikely that the malleable soon-to-be CIA director David Petraeus would ever object as strenuously to freeing Pollard as his intelligence-agency predecessors who threatened to resign when President Clinton first floated the idea.

In accepting an invitation to AIPAC as a sitting president, Obama has the opportunity to cement his legacy as the U.S. president least willing to advance American interests and principles—not to mention international law—over the demands of Israel and its U.S. lobby. By standing with an organization responsible for so much crime and corruption in the U.S., Obama may find himself positioned as a kind of American Hosni Mubarak. On May 21-24, the streets in front of the Washington, D.C., Convention Center (and the  Department of Justice) will become another Tahrir Square, as Americans gather from all corners of the country at Move Over AIPAC to expose and condemn corruption while demanding a new Middle East policy of peace, prosperity, and justice.