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AIPAC is Following Obama, Not Vice Versa

September 10, 2013 8:30 am 8 comments

President Obama speaks in Cairo in 2009. Photo: Chuck Kennedy.

JNS.org Barely minutes after the news broke that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was planning a major effort on Capitol Hill to garner support for the Obama Administration’s plan for a limited military operation against the Syrian regime, the conspiracy theorists were having a field day.

As always, it’s instructive to note how the notion that American foreign policy is a prisoner of organizations like AIPAC, the main pro-Israel lobbying group in America, is an idée fixe on both the far left and the extreme right. Juan Cole, a left-wing academic with a strong online following, grabbed the opportunity to argue that AIPAC, in advocating for what he described as “attacking Syria,” is out of touch with the opinions of most American Jews, who are not evil neoconservatives but solid progressives. The frankly kooky M.J. Rosenberg, an anti-Zionist Jewish blogger who is credited with popularizing the anti-Semitic term “Israel-Firster,” ranted about how “AIPAC and its cutouts are the only lobbying forces supporting the administration’s plans for war.”

Not to be outdone, Rod Dreher of the American Conservative, a magazine founded by Pat Buchanan, bemoaned the fact that AIPAC, in supporting military action, was endangering the lives of Syrian Christians, whom he believes are better off under the Assad regime. “Shoot, I’d be thrilled if Christians—I’m talking about many of our Evangelical friends—cared as much about their fellow Mideast Christians as they care about Israelis,” Dreher wrote.

Such concern for the plight of Christian minorities in the Middle East is touching, but also a tad disingenuous, as the American Conservative has never shown much sympathy for the fate of those Christian communities, from Nigeria to Pakistan, who suffer from Islamist atrocities. When you bring Israel into the equation, however, the magazine suddenly finds its voice.

The combined message here is clear: Syria is Iraq Redux, another “endless war” which America is being pushed into by a shadowy Jewish cabal. And that message neatly bolsters the thesis of the academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the high priests of the “Blame-the-Israel-Lobby” movement that the activities of pro-Israel organizations amount to bad news from America.

Critics of these conspiracy theories have rightly pointed out the anti-Semitic pedigree on display here. The idea that Jews are powerful enough to manipulate their governments from behind the scenes is a staple of modern anti-Semitism. Still, let’s for a moment take the Israel Lobby thesis on its own merits, and temporarily ignore the charge of anti-Semitism. Is the charge that the “Lobby” is the real authority when it comes to U.S. foreign policy empirically verifiable?

My answer to this question is a resounding no. In fact, I would go further. What the latest developments on Syria demonstrate is that rather than the “Lobby” running the Administration, it is the Administration that runs the “Lobby.”

Before last week, AIPAC, along with the mainstream Jewish advocacy organizations, had been largely silent on the atrocities taking place in Syria. In that sense, they are no different from the other influential groups and individuals who are either undecided on the issue of a limited military operation, or firmly opposed to it. It’s no secret that Obama faces a rough ride in Congress, especially as some of his traditional supporters, like the MoveOn.org PAC, are actively opposing any intervention in Syria. Similarly, it’s also true that the Jewish left is uncomfortable with the prospect of taking on the bestial Assad regime; J Street, a group which once ludicrously claimed to be Obama’s “blocking back” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict issue, has deserted the president over Syria.

Rather than pushing for war, then, AIPAC and similar groups have been drafted in at the last minute to boost support for a President who is looking dangerously isolated. The irony of an Administration, which includes Chuck Hagel, the defense secretary who famously bemoaned AIPAC’s influence, running to these same organizations to secure backing shouldn’t be lost on anyone. Even so, away from the political point scoring, what this shows is that the influence of pro-Israel groups is something this Administration values. Equally—and this is key—these groups will wield that influence when the Administration requests them to do so.

Importantly, this is not the first time that the Administration has turned to the “Lobby” for support on Middle East-related matters. Part of the reason that Secretary of State John Kerry was able to galvanize support and publicity for his efforts to renew the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was that he turned to American Jews, whose principal organizations dutifully trumpeted his message. The fact that Kerry’s diplomacy has yielded few results isn’t really his fault, nor is it the fault of American Jews. The stasis on the Israeli-Palestinian front is the consequence—as it always has been—of rejectionism among the Palestinians, whose leaders remain distinctly queasy about doing anything that might smack of accepting Israel’s legitimacy.

Any worry about all of this on the part of American Jewish organizations should relate not to accusations of outsize influence, but of association with failure. So far, Israel has little to show for its decision, under pressure from the Americans, to release 26 brutal Palestinian terrorists ahead of the talks. The Syrian intervention proposal is mired in confusion, because of widespread concern that an American-led operation will be too little, too late; the Administration’s declaration that it does not intend to remove Assad from power hardly strikes fear into the hearts of those who shower innocent men, women and children with chemical weapons.

If the Obama Administration can be confident of anything, it is that its American Jewish partners will never go so far as to openly criticize the president. Far from being the war-crazed cabal that is depicted in the imaginations of conspiracy theorists, the “Israel Lobby” is in reality an oasis of calm reliability for a president who may just be on the cusp of his biggest foreign policy failure.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

8 Comments

  • AIPAC, OBAMA, SYRIA

    IT ALL BOILS DOWN TO LAST CENTURY SONG LYRICS WHICH TODAY DESCRIBE U.S. FOREIGN POLICY.

    “FIRST YOU SAY YOU DO, AND THEN YOU DON’T, AND THEN YOU SAY YOU WILL, AND THEN YOU WON’T, YOU’RE UNDECIDED NOW, SO WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?…

  • Vivienne Leijonhufvud

    The only commentator here who has a grip on reality is speak truth. This whole debacle is about Saudia & co being peeved over pipelines. Haven’t seen Tom Hartmann’s show but have been following press. The unrest and friction between factions of Muslims is a separate issue that is being used as a smoke screen, Wahhabi vs the rest. As for the American Jewish lobby, all very well for them sitting in the US querying Israel’s actions etc – Armchair politics, Israel needs support, no evidence of constructive critique here. Finally I cannot understand why folks still believe it still to have been Assad who attacked on 21st. The FSA rebels backed by the US and Saudi are indirectly responsible, naturally the rebels as always went too far.

  • Gee fellers and gals, I thought this was about feeling morally compelled to help our fellow humans in a place called Syria. But, for Semites, it seems to be about AIPAC’s role in guiding American politics, while for anti-Semites it’s about AIPAC’s union with Rothschild bankers in a conspiracy to monopolize world currency. How about we forget for a moment that we all belong to different, ancient tribes, and think like a single species called HOMO sapiens?

  • Without knowing the extent of Obama’s attack plan in Syria, I voted in a poll to support military action beyond mere tokenism. It was the first time since 2008 that I agreed with him on anything. My reason was not complicated. If the civiilized world can countenance a tyrant’s massive use of poison gas to attack a helpless populace, then that populace must suffer the loss of all hope for freedom. Syrians have been steadfast in their rebellion against tyranny, but world indifferene to their plight would crush their spirit. Since casting my minority vote, the Kerry suggestion that Assad surrender his WMD’s has renewed hope for a solution. However, knowing how thin is the veneer of divinity-based moraltiy, should compel thinking people to seek a sturdier source for the knowledge of good and evil.

  • Unbeleivable that AIPAC have allowed Obama to make Jews the fall guys again.

  • The problem is, Ben, that while AIPAC might be listening to the administration, it’s not listening to its members and donors. Many (and I include myself as a supporter of AIPAC’s mission to strengthen the ties between America and Israel) are not inclined to support a bumbling president in an ill-conceived war effort. And affter yesterday’s gaffe by SoS Kerry suggesting that the US would back off if Syria handed over its chemical weapons, has been turned into a power play by Russia’s Putin to put down Obama. Guess who won: the guy in mom-jeans or the won who rides horseback barechested?
    Obama played AIPAC and the RJC, but Putin played him. And this new “strategy” means Assad can keep killing its citizens by conventional means without any fear of this defanged president shooting off missiles and Syria’s troops or weapons depots.
    “Unbelievably small” wars have a way of turning into big ones.
    And America’s standing in the world has just been made unbelieveably smaller.

  • AIPAC’s leadership’s patent subserviency to whatever it is that this US president desires is another reason why the leadership of AIPAC is derided by bullies as “those sucking-up Jews.” AIPAC does not speak for Americans, Jews, Christians, Hindus, etc. They speak only for themselves and for that reason they should drop their shields and stand on their own names. AIPAC certainly cannot speak for Israel even if AIPAC’s elders still crave group-think with refugees from Poland and the Shimon Peres claque whose cry has always been “peace at any price and please, you, not I, should pay.” We wonder if AIPAC’s elder leadership cannot assimilate here, there, or anywhere, because of their constant fear that they will be targeted and attacked for being Jews and thus they are always on the defensive, never daring to disparage their attackers and therefore are quick to fall on their knees and plead for favors from bullies instead of standing up to them. Through such febrile means these elderly Jews convert disinterested bystanders into bullies.

  • Syria has nothing to do with chemical weapons, its about an oil/gas pipeline through Syria. Assad has said no to Saudia Arabia, Qutar and Iran. Tom Hartmann show on 9.9 delivers the truth.

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