‘Friends owe it to friends to be as candid as possible,” Vice President Dick Cheney told the 6,200 delegates at this week’s annual gathering of Aipac, the vaunted pro-Israel lobbying organization. “So let me say that a precipitous American withdrawal from Iraq would be a disaster for the United States and the entire Middle East.”
It was an awkward moment, and a deeply revealing one. Aipac, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is known around the world as the most effective and powerful voice of the American Jewish community. The Bush administration, now at the lowest point in its six-year tenure, decided this was the time to come before this important constituency to appeal for help. “Israel has never had a better friend in the White House than George Bush,” Cheney said. Now it’s time to pay up.
There are many American Jewish voices, of course, but Aipac is the one that expresses in purest form the passionate devotion of Jews to Zion. That passion, more than any other factor, has made the Lobby a legendary power in Washington. And because of that storied clout, successive administrations have come to see in Aipac a force to be reckoned with — sometimes an ally, sometimes a rival, always a key player.
The Bush administration, more than most of its precedessors, has looked to Aipac as a friend. Because of the threats facing Israel, Jews more than most American constituencies share this administration’s alertness to the dangers of Islamic extremism. The administration appreciates that shared awareness and relies on it in a thousand ways.
There was nothing casual in Cheney’s turn of phrase when he said this week that he was speaking to “friends.” He was delivering an urgent message, from an administration besieged. We need you now.
Administration speeches usually are excuses to talk to the cameras, going over the heads of the audience at hand — veterans, physicians, soy-bean processors — to address the general public on the evening news. Cheney, in a dramatic departure, spoke this week directly to his audience, the Aipac delegates — and through them to the Jews they will meet back at home in shul next weekend. Friends owe it to friends, he said. I’m talking to you. We have a problem. Let’s be candid.
Cheney’s problem is that American Jews remain, at heart, liberals and Democrats. They have never shared this administration’s enthusiasm for unilateral intervention or regime change. They are alarmed at its faith-based policies and unhappy with its free-market fundamentalism. Not least, polls consistently show that Jews oppose the administration’s military policies in Iraq at a rate that surpasses nearly any other identifiable bloc in the electorate.
And so Cheney came to Aipac, not to deliver the expected message of solidarity and good cheer, but to administer a spanking. Friends owe it to friends, he said. You must support us in Iraq, he said, or else.
Or else what? Well, let’s start with the most pressing threat now facing Israel: the Islamic Republic of Iran and its nuclear ambitions. “It is simply not consistent,” Cheney said, “for anyone to demand aggressive action against the menace posed by the Iranian regime while, at the same time, acquiescing in a retreat from Iraq that would leave our worst enemies dramatically emboldened and Israel’s best friend, the United States, dangerously weakened.”
Nobody ever accused Cheney of playing softball.
Aipac delegates had many reasons to wince at Cheney’s words. First and foremost, the Lobby has always made a paramount principle of bipartisanship. Whatever else Americans may agree or disagree on, Aipac insists, Israel is a core value that unites them. Whatever its flaws, it is a beacon of democracy and freedom and a haven for a persecuted people, and its security should transcend politics. This principle has been crucial to Aipac’s success over the decades, as a voice of a mostly Democratic constituency in an era of mostly Republican dominance. It is the very heart of the Aipac message.
Cheney came to tear out that heart. We, the Republicans, are Israel’s true friends, he said. The Democrats, elected in a wave of popular revulsion at the war in Iraq, are Israel’s enemies. You, the representatives of the Jewish community, must choose between Israel and everything else you believe in.
No less alarming, Cheney was telling the Jewish community that the war in Iraq had been launched and fought in considerable measure for their benefit and Israel’s. That’s precisely the message that Israel’s worst enemies have been peddling for the past four years as America’s blood and treasure have been poured wastefully down the sinkhole of a misconceived and unwinnable war. It was a lie then, and it is a lie now. And now he seems to be casting Iran in the same light: as the Jews’ war.
Let’s be clear. Iran is a genuine threat, in a way that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq never was. It threatens not just Israel but all of America’s allies in the region — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and even the Palestinian Authority. It is the top issue on Aipac’s agenda, yet Aipac has worked hard to present it, correctly, as a global problem, not just a Jewish or Israeli one. Cheney, in his desperation, appears willing to undo that hard work and put the Jewish community at the center of the debate. That’s wrong. Friends don’t let friends drive each other over a cliff.
The candor of a friend, then, deserves an equally candid reply. It is not the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq that threatens disaster to the United States and the entire Middle East. The disaster is already here; it was precipitated by the entry of American troops into Iraq. The American-led invasion turned Iraq from a dreary dictatorship into a maelstrom of communal violence and a breeding ground of terrorism. The toppling of the tin-pot tyrant Saddam Hussein removed Iran’s worst enemy, unleashing the Islamic Republic as a regional superpower. The continuing presence of American troops as unwanted occupiers in the fabled city of Baghdad is inflaming rage in the streets throughout the Muslim world, putting Americans and Israelis alike at greater risk than ever.
The burning question for America and its allies in the region, Muslim and Jewish alike, is how to end the nightmare of the Iraq quagmire as quickly as possible, with the least damage to the torn fabric of civilization.