At last, the debate over America’s disastrous situation in Iraq has begun in earnest. With the entire nation now engaged, it is long overdue — and then some — for the Jewish community to weigh in and determine what insights Jewish values and interests can offer. We must do so not only because our prophetic tradition mandates that we speak out on the great moral issues of the day, and not only because as Americans we ought be deeply concerned for what this war means to our country, but also because Israel’s interests and security are so clearly at stake.
Yet in contrast to the stands taken on the Vietnam War, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and even the first Gulf War, too few rabbis have preached from the pulpit on the issue, and too few organizations have debated Iraq policy openly, let alone taken a position on the war and the urgent choices our nation must make.
Whatever the reasons for overthrowing Saddam Hussein and his regime, any discussion of Iraq must begin with this: The war has created and abetted ominous new threats to both the United States and the Jewish state.
This war has vividly demonstrated the limits of American power. Our bombs may be smart, but our tactics, from the moment the occupation began, have not been. American setbacks curtail our ability to project our power and pursue our interests.
We went into Iraq to prove to the world the ability of American power to reshape the world in accordance with our vision and interests. Instead, we only succeeded in demonstrating to the world the limits of American power. The result has been an even greater hesitancy on the part of the American people to engage with problematic situations beyond our borders. As Israel’s key political and military supporter, such changes undercut our ability to help Israel.
At the same time, to paraphrase Madeleine Albright, while our venture into Afghanistan eliminated the terrorist class of 2001, our war in Iraq has created the terrorist class of 2007. Saddam’s support for Palestinian terrorism was a clear danger, but Saddam’s Iraq was not nearly the base of terrorist activity it has become. One alarming legacy of Iraq is the large number of battle-hardened insurgents and terrorists.
Having developed effective new techniques and technologies to attack the infrastructure of civilian populations and the forces that protect them, it is not likely that these insurgents will be returning, like Cincinnatus, to productive work. After Iraq, where will their acquired skills most likely be aimed, if not at the United States and its allies, first and foremost Israel?
The Iraq war has also distracted the United States from engaging effectively with other foreign policy challenges. Significant American involvement is vital in moving toward peace between Israel and its neighbors, particularly the Palestinians, without which neither Israel’s security needs nor Palestinian political aspirations can be fulfilled. Perhaps Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s apparent new commitment to engage seriously with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will bear fruit, but for four years now, the United States has essentially played possum with the problem.
We missed the chance to coordinate with Israel in strengthening President Mahmoud Abbas and moderate elements of Palestinian civil society. We failed to use our influence effectively with Arab friends and allies to pressure Hamas to change the word and deed of their rejectionist policy toward Israel. No one, least of all Israel, benefits if the United States and international community continue to allow Gaza to descend into chaos.
And no one, of course, benefits from Iran’s rise to power and development of a nuclear military capability. The Iranian threat has mushroomed, with Tehran emboldened by America’s clumsiness in Iraq. America’s efforts to mobilize an international coalition to isolate Iran have proven less effective than they might have had America’s stature in the family of nations not been so dramatically wounded.
Furthermore, the dominance of an Iraqi Shi’ite political establishment friendly to, and likely supportive of, Iran greatly strengthens its regional influence — to Israel’s detriment. Not only has the war eroded America’s military deterrence power vis-à-vis Tehran, but if there were military action against Iranian targets, how much more emboldened would Iran now be in deciding whether to respond against the United States or Israel?
Even with Saddam’s removal, Israel is less secure as a result of the ongoing war in Iraq. Israel, the United States and the entire democratic world will be living with the fallout from our Iraq missteps for decades to come. It is time to end this folly before it makes America’s and Israel’s positions worse, and time for the Jewish community to determine where it stands on such efforts.
Rabbi David Saperstein is director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.