Bad for the U.S., Bad for Israel

By Leonard Fein

Published October 22, 2004, issue of October 22, 2004.
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It doesn’t really matter, and surely comes as no surprise, that substantial majorities in England, France, South Korea, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Spain and Australia think the war in Iraq is a mistake and that they prefer John Kerry to George Bush. In Mexico, 83% of the respondents to a rather remarkable poll say that our invasion of Iraq was wrong, and Kerry “defeats” Bush 55%-20%. In South Korea, Kerry wins over Bush 68% to 18%, and in France 72% to 16%.

What makes the poll remarkable is that it was conducted in 10 countries, under the auspices of leading newspapers in each. It is noteworthy, though hardly surprising, to find widespread disapproval of American policy and of its principal author, President Bush, at the same time that most respondents expressed favorable attitudes toward America and still more toward Americans. What makes the polls downright fascinating is that two countries deviate from the international norm: Russia and Israel.

Israel: Most Israelis say that their view of the United States has improved since the American invasion of Iraq, and 76% believe that America contributes to peace in the world. Half would like to see Bush re-elected; a quarter prefer Kerry.

The answer to the question “What do Israelis know that others do not?” is really quite simple: Israelis know Iraq up close. They view the threat of Iraq not as a distant hypothetical, but as a remembered actual. The Scuds that rained on Israel in 1990 did not come from Iran or Afghanistan; they came straight from Iraq. And Bush’s de facto endorsement of pretty much anything Prime Minister Sharon has chosen to do is far more appealing to Israelis than the sometimes confrontational posture of the first President Bush.

Although it is easy to understand Israel’s exceptionalism on these matters, there’s a difference between majority opinion and wisdom. At this stage of the ongoing Iraq saga, it is clear that America’s invasion has in fact rendered Israel less safe rather than more safe.

That is the view, among many others, of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies. The Jaffe Center, in a report titled “The Middle East Strategic Balance 2003-04,” offers two reasons for that frightening assessment: The Iraq war is a diversion from the battle against terrorism — just the point Senator Kerry has insistently made — and America’s stature in the world has radically declined.

This last was the danger from the outset of the war. Israelis were, quite understandably, thrilled to see America take on Saddam Hussein. Given a victorious America, they thought, Iraq would be removed as a serious threat to Israel. The problem not widely foreseen was the possibility of an American defeat, exactly the situation we now face.

Lest there still be any doubt that we are bogged down in Iraq, have a look and a listen at 20041014_b_main.asp. There you will find the full text of a remarkable letter by Farnaz Fassihi, a Wall Street Journal correspondent in Baghdad, along with observations by Baghdad correspondents of The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Time and Newsweek. A person would think they believe that America is losing the war.

Fassihi: “Despite President Bush’s rosy assessments, Iraq remains a disaster. If under Saddam it was a ‘potential’ threat, under the Americans it has been transformed to ‘imminent and active threat,’ a foreign policy failure bound to haunt the United States for decades to come.” The journalists’ consensus is that today there are terrorist organizations and facilities all over Iraq that were not there before the invasion. And the situation is getting worse, much worse. Fassihi again: “America’s last hope for a quick exit? The Iraqi police and National Guard units we are spending billions of dollars to train. The cops are being murdered by the dozens every day — to 700 to date (that was mid-September) — and the insurgents are infiltrating their ranks. The problem is so serious that the U.S. military has allocated $6 million to buy out 30,000 cops they just trained to get rid of them quietly.”

We do not know what Israelis would think were they to read what Fassihi writes near the end of her letter: “One could argue that Iraq is already lost beyond salvation. For those of us on the ground, it’s hard to imagine what if any thing could salvage it from its violent downward spiral. The genie of terrorism, chaos and mayhem has been unleashed onto this country as a result of American mistakes, and it can’t be put back into a bottle.” Perhaps the much-remarked Israeli infatuation with America and things American impedes a capacity for sober assessment of American policy; perhaps the dismal truth of what is happening in Iraq will soon, however reluctantly, dawn on the Israelis. An Iraq that has become a center for international terrorism — exactly what it was not under Saddam — must sooner or later suggest to Israelis that this war, in its conception and more so in its execution, was and remains a debacle.

The harsh but simple truth is this: No president can be good for Israel who is not good for America. So far, Bush has quite plainly presided over a weakening of America. Our troops are bogged down and dying in Iraq, and as for our reputation — well, 56% of all the respondents in all 10 countries have a lower opinion of the United States than they did two or three years ago.

It will not be easy to restore America’s stature in the world, much less to figure out how to bring the war to an end. As Bush might say, it will be hard work. How very odd that some people believe the man who created the problems is the man to solve them.

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).

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