Surge Protectors

Article excerpt

The mixed motives behind the Freedom's Watch ad campaign

LATE THIS SUMMER, just as American political armies were squaring off over the next, and likely last, act of President Bush's Iraq War policy, a new prowar group called Freedom's Watch announced a $15-million ad buy over several months in key states. The first ads featured soldiers who had been maimed in Iraq but stood by the cause of a global war on terror. Political observers said they were targeted at the districts of Republican congressmen who were going wobbly on the war.

The rollout was not auspicious. Ari Fleischer, a board member of Freedom's Watch and the former White House spokesman, stumbled on MSNBC's "Hardball" when Mike Barnicle screened one of the ads and asked, "What's that soldier's name?" "I don't have that soldier's name in front of me," Fleischer said. (His name is John Kriesel, and he lost both legs in Fallujah last year). The fact that Fleischer and another member of the group's board had worked in the Bush White House seemed to support the view that that the group was an administration front. Says Moira Mack of Americans Against Escalation in Iraq (which has its own smaller ad campaign): "This is a desperate attempt to counter the strong and growing movement to end the war. We have the public backing of millions of members. They have money and ads, but they don't have public support."

The Jewish press offered a different take. "Pro-Surge Group Is Almost All Jewish," reported the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the lead wire service for Jewish news. Four out of five members of the Freedom's Watch board are Jews, and half of its donors are Jewish. The JTA quoted one of its directors, Matthew Brooks, saying this was strictly a "coincidence."

As a progressive Jew, I don't think it is that simple. Right-wing Jewish support has always been a crucial prop for the Iraq War. The neoconservatives, who pushed for the war for years and then got their way after 9/11, originated as a largely Jewish movement that formed in the 1970s in good part out of concern for Israel's security. Many of the neocons cited Saddam's attacks on Israel as a reason for the U.S. to invade Iraq, and similar pro-war arguments spread to liberal Jews. The New York Times 's Thomas Friedman pointed at Saddam's payments to suicide bombers in Tel Aviv as justification for the invasion, and I remember being shocked when my own brother said he didn't know what to think about the Iraq War. He had demonstrated against the Vietnam War, but his Jewish newspaper said this one would be "good for Israel."

National polls show that Jews opposed the war by a higher percentage than other groups (about 60 percent against), but that opposition was soft. The National Jewish Democratic Council, the body that advocates for Jewish values in the Democratic Party, takes a strong stand in favor of abortion rights, but had no opinion on the Iraq War-its own membership was divided. The Union of Reform Judaism supported the war in 2002 as a "just cause." Three years later, it changed its mind and in doing so, issued a lament I share, that Jews were largely AWOL from the antiwar movement. The Reform rabbis then called for withdrawal, which prompted an attack by one liberal Jewish writer, who wrote, "A premature withdrawal from Iraq would be devastating to the cause of the Jewish state."

These days, few Jews are making such open statements about a Jewish interest in the Iraq War. The war is a debacle, and even the left-leaning Jewish Forward has expressed fear that a populist American movement against the war will blame Jews for it and turn on them. The Forward became apprehensive last year when two leading political scientists at the University of Chicago and Harvard published a lengthy paper in the London Review of Books that argued that without Israel's friends pushing for the war, it probably wouldn't have happened. Authors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have since expanded their argument, publishing a heavily-footnoted book called The Israel Lobby and U. …