Rep. James P. Moran’s remarks on the influence of American Jews on the Bush administration’s hard line against Iraq have put a public face on a bitter and intensely personal debate among policy-makers and pundits over the motivations of those pushing a new war in the Middle East.
The Alexandria Democrat has apologized profusely for his March 3 comment that there would be no military strike against Saddam Hussein “if it were not for the strong support of the [American] Jewish community.” But some argue that Mr. Moran did not go far enough with his apology.
Both the White House and senior Democratic leaders in Congress were swift to condemn Mr. Moran’s comments. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called the remarks “shocking. They are wrong, and they should not have been said.”
Charges of “dual loyalty” and countercharges of anti-Semitism have become common in the feud, with some war opponents even asserting that Mr. Bush’s most hawkish advisers — many of them Jewish — are putting Israel’s interests ahead of those of the United States in provoking a war with Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.
“A stronger Israel is very much embedded in the rationale for war,” said Richard Stengel, a columnist with Time magazine’s online edition. “It is a part of the argument that dare not speak its name, a fantasy quietly cherished by the neoconservative faction in the Bush administration and by many leaders of the American Jewish community.”
MSNBC talk-show host Chris Matthews said war supporters in the Bush Pentagon were “in bed” with Israeli hawks eager to take out Saddam.
That line of argument has spurred a furious counterattack, with many saying that some of the criticism has crossed the line from legitimate policy debate to classic anti-Semitism.
“The Moran argument is outrageous on its face,” said Mitchell G. Bard, executive director of Bethesda-based American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and a former editor for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“President Bush has always said he is pursuing his policy to protect American lives, not to aid Israel,” he said. “The idea that Israel or its American supporters can convince a president of the United States to go to war when he doesn’t want to is ridiculous.”
Sometimes the line between legitimate and illegitimate criticism is difficult to see, said Shoshana Bryen, special projects director for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), a small but influential Washington think tank. “Any policy is subject to legitimate criticism, and you can even debate whether America’s interests and Israel’s interests are the same or different in a given situation.
“Where you cross the line, as Moran did, is when you make a blanket statement ascribing a view or a motivation to an entire group of people. It is not legitimate when you impute hidden motives to someone or some group, when you don’t address their arguments but attack them for who they are.”
JINSA’s advisory board in recent years has boasted such prominent Iraq hawks as Vice President Richard B. Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Pentagon adviser Richard Perle.
Ms. Bryen said JINSA, which was founded in 1976, attracted such people as Mr. Perle and Mr. Wolfowitz because the organization dealt with issues they already cared about deeply. “It’s not as if they were waiting for JINSA to come along and tell them how to think about the problems of the Middle East,” she said.
The leading U.S. Jewish groups have not taken a formal stand on war with Iraq, and polls indicate that American Jews’ views on the war mirror those of the U.S. population as a whole — with 59 percent of American Jews backing military action compared with 58 percent of the population.
Patrick J. Buchanan writes, in the American Conservative magazine, which he edits, that it is “a cabal of polemicists and public officials” who “seek to ensnare our country in a series of wars that are not in America’s interests.”
Mr. Buchanan raised the question before, in the run-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
But both sides say the debate has substantially broadened this time, in part because of the strong influence of neoconservative hawks on the security policies of the Bush administration and in part because many leftist protesters in the anti-war movement have raised the same issue.
Critics such as Mr. Buchanan and many peace activists say that Israel and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will be the prime beneficiary of any move to oust Saddam. From Israel’s perspective, they say, a successful war would cripple a regional rival and military threat, destabilize regimes such as Iran and Syria that are hostile to Israel, ease the pressure to make concessions in the conflict with the Palestinians, and leave Mr. Sharon as the sole remaining worthwhile U.S. ally in the region.
“For some of Israel’s supporters both within the U.S. administration and the think tanks that feed it ideas, catastrophic developments … and the instability, chaos and violence that would ensue, fit into a broader plan to completely remake an unruly Middle East with Israel as the dominant local power under overall American hegemony,” wrote columnist Ali Abunimah for the Electronic Intifada, an Internet news service that covers Middle East events “from a Palestinian perspective.”
Mr. Buchanan says his opposition is to war, not to Jews. “[Neoconservatives] say we attack them because they are Jewish. We do not,” he writes. “We attack them because their warmongering threatens our country, even as it finds a reliable echo in Ariel Sharon.”
The U.S. debate has presented a delicate dilemma for Israel, which has tried to keep a low profile even though an Iraq war is frequently referred to by many in the Sharon government who believe it would help solve many of Israel’s economic and strategic problems.
Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said in a speech earlier this week that his country was “trying to be very low-profile here because Iraq is not our business. Iraq is not an Israeli problem. It’s an international problem, it’s a problem for the region, it’s a problem for its own population. … For anyone to suggest that the road to Baghdad runs through Jerusalem, nothing could be further from the truth.”