As hard as leaders of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, are trying to maintain a politely bipartisan tone among the 14,000 activists gathered for the lobby’s annual conference, unhappiness with the Obama administration keeps surfacing in small conference rooms and chats in the corridors.
Occasionally rancor surfaces in the mass plenary sessions, despite the leadership’s best efforts to roll back the partisanship that hurt the lobby during the recent confrontation over Iran sanctions. Arizona Republican Senator John McCain received loud standing ovations on Monday morning when he blamed the Ukraine crisis on President Obama’s “feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.”
Nor is the rancor always partisan. New Yorker Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat, delivered a direct attack Monday evening on Secretary of State John Kerry, moments before Kerry was to take the stage, thundering that “those who warn that Israel must make agreements that she feels are unjust because the boycotts will get worse are wrong. Those quote-unquote friends should be in every possible way condemning the boycotts.” He was referring to Kerry’s February 1 warning at a security conference in Munich, which drew furious protests from Israeli leaders.
It’s in the smaller sessions, however, that the gloves sometimes come off in the course of what begins as a dispassionate expert analysis of anything from Syria to the Pacific rim.
One of the conference’s most piercing criticisms of Obama came during a panel discussion on Syria from a foreign service veteran, Fred Hof, who served as a top Syria expert in the State Department during Obama’s first term and was given the rank of ambassador by the president in 2012. Currently a scholar at the Atlantic Council, Hof gave an in-depth analysis of the crisis to a crowd of about 200 in which he assigned major blame to Obama for failing last year to make good on his threat of action if the Assad regime used chemical weapons.
“In 2013,” Hof said, “the administration willingly gave up the military option in order to obtain a chemical weapons agreement.” He said the president mistakenly counted on cooperation from Russia, Assad’s main arms supplier, to complete the decommissioning of the chemical weapons, which he said is now stalled. “Without the threat of credible military force, there is nothing that can move the Assad regime.”
Hof called Assad’s use of chemical weapons Obama’s “Srebrnica moment,” comparing it to the mass atrocity in Bosnia that moved the Clinton administration to military action. Now that chemical weapon use has ceased, the regime seems free to continue its mass slaughter without fear of intervention – unless, he added sarcastically, “the regime will commit another atrocity on a scale that will interest President Obama.”
He was followed by the liberal Israeli Middle East scholar Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s ambassador in Washington under Yitzhak Rabin, who echoed Hof’s criticisms. But, Rabinovich said, “President Obama doesn’t have to wait for another atrocity” to act against the mass killing, which he called “an abomination.”
“There’s something wrong with our minds that we need the use of something like chemical weapons to focus our attention on war crimes” on the scale of the Syrian slaughter.
Both men insisted there were actions short of ground invasion that could have deterred the regime last year, while moderates still had the upper hand over jihadi extremists within the opposition forces. Hof suggested that moderates were still strong enough to dominate the opposition. But, he added, “in assessing risk, let’s not regard the current situation as an acceptable norm.”
And both Hof and Rabinovich made it clear, as McCain had earlier, that they thought Obama’s hesitation in Syria last summer was a fatal error with snowballing effects on America’s credibility in other arenas. The same view was expressed by the Washington Post in a Monday editorial. Increasingly, even allies of the president are suggesting that by drawing a line in the sand and then backing off, Obama gravely wounded his credibility and unleashed challenges like Russia’s grab in Crimea, Chinese saber-rattling over disputed islands in the Pacific and perhaps even Israeli and Palestinian stonewalling on Kerry’s peace initiative.
One miscalculation, it seems, can haunt you for a long time.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).