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. What the latest developments on Syria demonstrate is that rather than the “Lobby” running the Administration, it is the Administration that runs the “Lobby.”
Rather than pushing for war, AIPAC and similar groups have been drafted to boost support for a President who is looking dangerously isolated. This is the irony of an Administration, that includes Chuck Hagel, the defense secretary who famously bemoaned AIPAC’s influence.
This is not the first time the Administration turned to the “Lobby” for support. 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.
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. Rather than a “war-crazed cabal,” 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.