02 April 2007

02 April 2007 – Why should Jewish organizations push for Iraq withdrawal?

On Friday, I ran into an old high school friend whom I had not seen in ten years. He had just returned from Baghdad, where he works in the U.S. embassy. When I told him, “I support what you are doing over there,” he reacted with surprise. “Really?” he asked. “I’ve become much more cynical.” He told me there had been rocket attacks in the days before his departure, and several of his colleagues had died.

I asked him whether he thought more troops were the answer. He shook his head. The real problem, he said, is that Iraqis don’t “own the process.” He added that Iraqi leaders never seem to miss an opportunity to inflame sectarian hatred. So, I responded, should the U.S. withdraw? He shrugged. That, he said, would bring about a certain kind of stability—but also the slaughter of the Sunni minority.

It would seem, then, I said, that staying in Iraq is a bad option—perhaps even a terrible option—but it is also the “least bad” of all the options. He agreed. Leaving, he added, would not only trigger a destructive civil war but would also create a new Iranian client state in the Middle East—an unacceptable outcome for the future peace and security of the region. Like it or not, the U.S. has to stay in Iraq.

I came home and found the Passover edition of the Chicago Jewish News, whose lead story, by Ron Kampeas, is about how Jewish organizations are coming under pressure to publicly oppose the war in Iraq. American Jews and black Protestants, Kampeas notes, are more opposed to the war than any other groups, with opposition at 77 percent among Jews, and some want “to call Jewish organizations to account.”

But why? Jewish organizations never endorsed the war to begin with. The article points out that they kept their distance from day one. Kampeas adds that AIPAC—contrary to what George Soros and the Economist claim—never backed the Iraq war, either. Unless applause for President Bush at AIPAC’s policy conference counts as support, there’s nothing to hold Jewish organizations to account for.

In fact, demanding that Jewish organizations bear some responsibility for opposing the Iraq war lends credence to a dangerous conspiracy theory that is spreading among otherwise intelligent people. The idea is that the “Israel lobby”—also referred to as the “Jewish lobby”—controls American foreign policy and is to blame not only for U.S. policy towards Israel but for the American invasion of Iraq.

This theory is on the rise because Americans—like Germans after the First World War, Russians after the Russo-Japanese War and the British during the Boer War—are looking for something to explain, and someone to blame for, the apparent failure in Iraq. Israel and Jews are in danger of becoming the scapegoats. All the familiar elements of the old conspiracy theories are slowly falling into place.

I don’t believe that Jews are in danger in America. But I do believe that Israel is in danger. A campaign of irrational—but calculated—defamation is under way that is preparing the justification for Israel’s destruction. At the same time, Jews in many parts of the world are being asked—often by fellow Jews—to trade away support for Israel as ransom for the community’s security. That has ominous implications.

Perhaps opponents of the war simply want to use the moral and political weight of Jewish organizations to support their cause. They are entitled to do so, but Jewish organizations would be foolish to allow themselves to be manipulated in this way. Not only would withdrawal from Iraq lead to a massive humanitarian disaster, but it would also allow Iran to present a deadlier and more direct threat to Israel.

This is not the Vietnam War. American soldiers are not torching villages to eliminate enemy fighters and sympathizers. Rather, they are trying to protect Iraqi civilians from terror attacks, and trying to aid Iraq build a stable, multi-ethnic democracy. What began as an invasion is now a peacekeeping mission. To call it a “war” is little more than question-begging. We are far beyond that now.

What would truly be immoral would be to withdraw and leave Iraqis on the verge of civil war, with no protection from external enemies or from each other. Jews often ask how we might avoid future Holocausts. If the U.S. pulls out of Iraq now, one is almost sure to commence immediately. Staying in Iraq is the only way to prevent it, and may be our moral obligation to do so, though the difficulties are tremendous.

With the U.S. gone, Iran would be free to exert its will over Iraq and to do what it likes in Iraqi territory. The country would basically become a Shia-dominated Iranian client state. Iranian missiles and troops would swiftly take up positions in Iraq, and Iranian weapons might even move across the porous Syrian border and face Israel directly across the Golan. Is that what Jewish leaders should support?

If Iran develops a nuclear bomb—or even enough radioactive material for a “dirty bomb”—the only deterrent (perhaps) would be the 100,000 U.S. troops on its border and nuclear submarines patrolling the Persian Gulf. Israel’s threats to retaliate would be ineffective, since one Shihab-3 missile could end its existence and the Iranian government might be prepared to take the risk to achieve that aim.

Withdrawing from Iraq now or in the next year (as the Senate has recommended) would be a grave mistake. It is politically and morally wrong. It is not the kind of policy that Jewish organizations should associate themselves with. And those who hope to appease the rising tide of antisemitism by being seen to push for early withdrawal will only increase public misperceptions of Jewish political power.

American troops in Iraq are protecting millions of innocent people from terror and war. They are also indirectly protecting the State of Israel from its most determined and dangerous foe. The death toll in Iraq has been high, but American casualties are low by historic standards. Perhaps it would have been better not to invade Iraq at all. That issue, however, is in the past, and we must face the challenges of today.

I have often argued that Jewish organizations should not keep silent on issues of conscience. But neither should they be held to account for America’s foreign policy, or Israel’s domestic policy. Organized Jewry in South Africa erred by waiting until the waning years of apartheid to condemn it. But opposition to the war in Iraq is not a clear-cut issue; in fact, the moral arguments may run in the other direction.

Jewish organizations kept the Iraq war at arm’s length. So, too, did AIPAC. That was, and remains, the right decision. If anything, Jewish and pro-Israel organizations should oppose a precipitous withdrawal. And above all, we should show the men and women serving in Iraq our gratitude and support. Their work and their sacrifices are protecting innocent lives and the values that we hold dear.

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