Kampeas: Jewish neocons are more than 2 degrees removed from Bush’s decision to invade Iraq

US Politics
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Ron Kampeas
Ron Kampeas

Yesterday I posted a question that I’d sent to Ron Kampeas of JTA: why is it that the Walt and Mearsheimer thesis, that the Israel lobby played a crucial role in pushing the Iraq war, has become more and more mainstream in recent months/years?

Kampeas sent me an answer on Facebook yesterday and then posted his response at JTA. Here it is:

Short answer, no, it has not become acceptable in mainstream discourse because it is still not true, and yes, it at least flirts with anti-Semitism. Long answer after the jump, with a couple of small modifications to the Facebook message I sent him.

A) Do I think the Walt-Mearsheimer position, specifically on the centrality of pro-Israel feelings by Jews spurring the Iraq War, has prevailed?

No, especially because Stephen Walt himself has dialed it back. See here

You also mischaracterize M.S. of the Economist (I’m told his name is Matt Steinglass) — he does not quite say “the Iraq war was fostered by neoconservatives concerned with Israel’s security;” he says, “It’s entirely accurate to count neoconservative policy analyses as among the important causes of the war, to point out that the pro-Israeli sympathies of Jewish neoconservatives played a role in these analyses, and to note the support of the Israeli government and public for the invasion.”

So there’s an “among the important causes” there — and even that refers to the holistic role of the neoconservatives and not just their Israel sympathies. So Jewish neoconservatives and their Jewishness are two degrees removed from being the cause, according to his formulation. But even he is wrong.

The Bush administration was determined to invade Iraq. It pitched the invasion to a number of constituencies it saw as important to making the case; like any good salesman, it didn’t use the same pitch twice, it tailored the sale to the target.

So Democrats, always seeking national security credibility, got the terrorism argument. The media, always seeking the next mortal threat, got that. Liberals who have embraced intervention as a means of preventing slaughter, got the Kurdish argument. And pro-Israel groups and Jews and Israel got the threat to Israel.

None of these arguments stood up, and to lesser and greater degrees each of these constituencies paid a price for being duped. Among Democrats, Joe Lieberman is leaving office and Hillary Clinton is not president. Among journalists, Judith Miller and Howell Raines are not at the New York Times and Bill Keller is apologizing. Among liberal hawks, Peter Beinart is shreying gevalt, and Jeffrey Goldberg is still engaged in protracted defenses, and Tom Friedman more or less admits he was duped. And in the Jewish world, the pro-Israel movement is now dealing with J Street — an outcome explainable in part, I think, by distrust in the Jewish establishment engendered by its Iraq War support. (I should note that the manifestation of that support varied widely depending upon the group, from deeply qualified to enthusiastic.)

So yes, there has been a consequence for Jewish officialdom for being talked into backing the war — but you’re mistaking that as a consequence for the pro-Israel movement being central to advancing the war. There is no such consequence because its premise is simply not true.

The Bush administration invaded Iraq principally because it was attached to a policy of maintaining U.S. preeminence in a vitally important region. This policy was cut from the same cloth as GOP/neoconservative clamoring for a tougher posture vis-a-vis Putin, the same cloth as the championing of Taiwan, the same cloth as the decades old isolation of Cuba. 

B) Anti-Semitism can be defined as toxic myths attached to Jews. There are two at work in your thesis here:

1) Jews act only to advance their own interests. They do and they don’t — it’s wildly complicated — but not more than any other special interest in an American polity that is highly susceptible to special interest pressure.

2) Jews send others to die in fruitless wars. Maybe the Iraq war was fruitless — we’ll see — but its motor was not the Jews, it was not Israel. It was a specifically American self-perception of this nation’s preeminence in the world, for better or worse, identifiable as early as Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, if not as early as the Barbary Coast. Both historical identifiers, you’ll note, predate Israel’s existence.

Good debate. Some quick responses: I am informed that Robert Kaplan at the Atlantic has a giant and largely positive profile of John Mearsheimer coming out this week, acknowledging Mearsheimer’s leadership and creativity as a student of history. Huh. What’s that about– the march of history…

Kampeas misquotes the Economist. What M.S. wrote crucially is that “any analysis of the war’s causes that didn’t take these [factors] into account would be deficient”– and those factors were the Jewishness of the neocons.

No one ever said that Cheney and Bush and Rumsfeld didn’t start the war. They started the war. No one said that some of these planners didn’t have a deluded American interest in mind that had nothing to do with Israel. The irresponsibility that Kampeas is exhibiting here is the claim that ideas are not important in such matters. The best and brightest fostered the Vietnam war for some reasons I haven’t studied; and in this instance, the idea that was relentlessly promoted by the neoconservatives was the claim that by imposing democracy by force on an Arab nation of importance, democracy would take hold across the region. This was a very powerful and very stupid idea. It held sway. It affected Ken Pollack and Tom Friedman deeply.

And I won’t go into it here, because I  have done so at length on other occasions, but neoconservativism came out of the Jewish community, and its forefathers Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz specifically formulated the school because they feared that a weak American military program would drive a knife into Israel, as Kristol framed it. In the runup to the Iraq war, neoconservatives, who were to be sure not only Jewish, pushed the Iraq war because they said Israel’s war against terror is our war. In countless manifestos for the war (Paul Berman, Kristol and Kaplan, Wurmser, Frum, Perle), Saddam’s actions against Israel in supporting suicide bombers were described as a threat to the west. Israel was on their minds. The irresponsibility of the Kampeas claim is as absurd as a defense of an arsonist who went around a neighborhood urging people to burn down someone’s house that it wasn’t he who put the gas soaked rags on the house. It reflects a belief that Jewish actions don’t have agency in history. No, it is the rulers, the czars, who move history. We are bystanders or victims. This is a misrepresentation of our great tradition in the 20th century, a refusal to recognize that great Jewish bankers putting pressure on American presidents freed my ancestors from pogroms in Russia, and ignorance of the schoolchild’s truth, The pen is mightier than the sword. Some Jews wielding pens have a lot of power in this country, and some of them have acted out of what Irving Kristol described as a “Jewish interest” to protect Israel, and this makes it more important than ever that Jews who don’t see separatism (Zionism) as being in their interest dissociate themselves from the neoconservative agenda and repudiate it. Which is happening.

I am really pleased to learn that people are suffering for having supported the Iraq war. Not that I want anyone to suffer. It’s new year’s! But it is important that there is accountability for bad ideas.

On the anti-Semitism stuff, alas, the neocons have endangered the Jewish presence in the west through their selfish interest. The beauty of this moment is that a lot of great Jews have been called by the neocons’ error to celebrate Jewish integration in western societies. 

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