Israel's propaganda fortress faces a surprising new challenge.
DESPITE THE FAILURE IN IRAQ, the repudiation of the president's foreign policy in opinion polls and the 2006 elections, and the collapse of respect for the U.S. in most other countries, support for the Bush Doctrine of preventive war remains surprisingly intact among one important slice of Americans: the presidential candidates of both major parties. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently lamented that Democratic contenders were sounding soft, crafting their foreign-policy positions to generate "applause lines in Iowa." He needn't have worried. The parade of White House aspirants to appear before a hawkish Israeli audience in Herzliya, and an equally hawkish AIPAC crowd in New York, is a truer gauge of where leading candidates stand.
On New Year's Day, Israeli superhawk Benjamin Netanyahu called for an "intense international public relations front" to persuade Americans of the need for military confrontation with Iran. The sight of John Edwards addressing a conference in Israel by satellite feed, along with John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney-the latter two actually flew in to speak in person-indicated that the front already exists. All the candidates spoke as if preemptive war in the Middle East was a tried and true success. As a correspondent from Jewish Week summed it up, the U.S. presidential hopefuls were "competing to see who can be most strident in defense of the Jewish state." The consensus choice for the competition's winner was Romney, but the putatively liberal Edwards, who described preventing Iran from securing nuclear weapons as "the greatest challenge of our generation," made a surprisingly strong showing. No leading presidential contender suggested that attacking Iran might be a bad idea.
This hawkishness is actually an outlier sentiment, popular only among those running for office. In Washington, it's difficult to find a foreign-policy expert who thinks that any good would come of a strike on Iran. Even the neocons have their doubts. The Iraq War, miserable concept that it was, had far more respected backers.
American military options are poor. Surgical air strikes wouldn't do anything decisive to Iran's nuclear program, but they would create huge problems for Americans in Iraq and perhaps lead to a two or threefold rise in the price of oil. The U.S. lacks the troops to enforce regime change through a land invasion and has already demonstrated its inability to successfully occupy a Muslim country one-third Iran's size. Furthermore, Iran, according to U.S. intelligence estimates, is ten years away from a nuclear weapon. Its seemingly nutty current president is losing support in the country. Those most theologically opposed to the Shia Islam that Tehran espouses are the very al-Qaeda Sunnis who set this dreadful train of events in motion in the first place.
So why do leading politicians line up for "The Bush Doctrine: Take Two"? On the Republican side, it might be explained by a desire to cater to elements of the Christian Right that believe a final showdown with Islam is called for on religious grounds, or to talk-radio listeners who want to nuke the "Islamofascists" because that's what weapons are made for. Such groups form part of the GOP base. But what of Edwards, what of Hillary Clinton-both eager to be on the record for keeping all options on the table? It's a question that cannot be truthfully answered without reference to the neuralgic subject of the Israel lobby.
It is a tough issue to address, as Gen. Wesley Clark, a middle-of-the-pack Democratic presidential contender in 2004, recently discovered. Upon reading an Arnaud de Borchgrave column that discussed a then incipient Israeli campaign to pressure Hillary Clinton and other Democrats to "publicly support immediate action by Bush against Iran," he lost his cool, saying to Arianna Huffington, "How can you talk about bombing a country when you won't even talk to them? …