Toxic Talk on War

By Lawrence F. Kaplan
Tuesday, February 18, 2003; Page A25

Who is driving this rush to war in Iraq? A decade ago, on the eve of the last Persian Gulf War, conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan alleged that Israel and its "amen corner" were to blame. A media firestorm ensued, with condemnations pouring in from across the political spectrum. Now, on the eve of yet another Gulf war, Buchanan has revived the claim. Only this time a chorus of voices from the left, right and center has emerged to echo it.

From the musty precincts of the Old Right, the contention that Israel and a powerful "cabal" of its American supporters have manufactured the present crisis with Iraq has become canonical. Buchanan, who writes that President Bush has become a client of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the "neoconservative war party," has transformed his new magazine, the American Conservative, into a regular forum for those who share this conviction. One of its contributors, University of Illinois history professor Paul W. Schroeder, deems it self-evident that the plan for an invasion "is being promoted in the interests of Israel."

"Certainly it is being pushed very hard by a number of influential supporters of Israel of the hawkish neoconservative stripe in and outside the administration (Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, and others)," Schroeder writes.

Seconding this appraisal, conservative writer Georgie Anne Geyer, whose column appears weekly in the Washington Times, reveals how "the fanatic neoconservatives around the administration, the rabid Israel supporters in the White House and the Pentagon," plan to wage war in Iraq and then to "democratize the entire Middle East, including Syria and Saudi Arabia, if necessary by military means, in order to secure Ariel Sharon's Israel."

Meanwhile on the left -- where many cannot fathom why, absent the urging of Israelis and their American co-religionists, the Bush administration would be so eager to topple Saddam Hussein -- the socialism of fools has been enjoying something of a vogue. Writing in the Nation, Jason Vest reports that the Bush team's "attack-Iraq chorus," working in tandem with "far-right American Zionists," subscribes to "articles of faith that effectively hold there is no difference between U.S. and Israeli national security interests." The respected liberal intellectual Ian Buruma has managed to locate the reasons for a U.S. war against Iraq in, among other places, "Jewish-American hysteria" and the fact that "macho images of suntanned Jewish soldiers gathered round laughing tough guys such as Ariel Sharon wiped out, as it were, 2,000 years of being Woody Allen."

Nor is this sort of fare the exclusive property of the political fringe. The ubiquitous talk-show host Chris Matthews pins blame for the impending war on "conservative people out there, some of them Jewish, who are very tough on foreign policy. They believe we should fight the Arabs and take them down. They believe that if we don't fight Iraq, Israel will be in danger." Matthews even thinks that Sharon is "writing [Bush's] speeches sometimes" and that Sharon's cabinet ministers are "in bed with the vice president's office and the Defense Department." Syndicated columnist Robert Novak has described the U.S conflict with Iraq as "Sharon's war," adding that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice's branding of Hezbollah as the world's most dangerous terrorist organization suggests that "the U.S. war against terrorism, accused of being Iraq-centric, actually is Israel-centric." Twice in recent speeches, former senator Gary Hart has said that we "must not let our role in the world be dictated by Americans who too often find it hard to distinguish their loyalties to their original homelands from their loyalties to America and its national interests."

Does all this add up to an echo of Charles Lindbergh's charge that the clamor to wage war against Hitler was being stirred by "the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration"? Not necessarily. How the Bush administration has arrived at the brink of war with Saddam Hussein, and to what extent Israeli influence has brought it there, is a legitimate question about which there is ample room for disagreement.

The problem here is the implication that some members of the Bush team have been doing Israel's bidding and, by extension, harbor dual loyalties. The charge that the administration's "rabid Israel supporters" are behind the drive to war is risible. Perle and Wolfowitz and their fellow Jewish neoconservatives are surely hawks -- but not merely on Iraq. Their expansive view of America's overseas obligations has in the past led them to support interventions wherever America's interests and ideals have been threatened: Grenada, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Bosnia, Kosovo -- in the last two cases for the explicit purpose of protecting Muslims. Many of these officials have also had profound disagreements with their Israeli counterparts -- not least on the question of whether Iran or Iraq presents the greater threat. Then, too, the Cabinet-level officials driving the current debate have mostly been non-Jewish Goldwater Republicans whose brand of conservatism hardly qualifies as "neo." In fact, the claim that Jewish officials with close ties to Israel have been driving the Bush team's policy toward Iraq could just as easily have been leveled against the previous administration, whose Iraq policy was the opposite of the current one. For that matter, a cursory review of the literature opposing war in Iraq reveals that the charge of "Jewish-American hysteria" could just as easily apply to opponents of an invasion.

But the real problem with claims such as these is not just that they are untrue. The problem is that they are toxic. Invoking the specter of dual loyalty to quiet criticism and debate amounts to more than the everyday pollution of public discourse. It is the nullification of public discourse, for how can one refute accusations grounded in ethnicity? The charges are, ipso facto, impossible to disprove. And so they are meant to be.

The writer is a senior editor at the New Republic and co-author, with William Kristol, of the forthcoming book "The War Over Iraq."

2003 The Washington Post Company