Matthew Yglesias

Is There A Kosher Way to Criticize the Israel Lobby?

This article is reprinted from the American Prospect.

Retired General Wesley Clark is, like me, concerned that the Bush administration is going to launch a war with Iran. Arianna Huffington spoke to him in early January and asked why he was so worried the administration was headed in this direction. According to Huffington's January 4 recounting of Clark's thoughts, he said this: "You just have to read what's in the Israeli press. The Jewish community is divided but there is so much pressure being channeled from the New York money people to the office seekers."

This, of course, is true. I'm Jewish and I don't think the United States should bomb Iran, but Thursday night I was talking to a Jewish friend and she does think the United States should bomb Iran. The Jewish community, in short, is divided on the issue. It's also true that most major American Jewish organizations cater to the views of extremely wealthy major donors whose political views are well to the right of the bulk of American Jews, one of the most liberal ethnic groups in the country. Furthermore, it's true that major Jewish organizations are trying to push the country into war. And, last, it's true that if you read the Israeli press you'll see that right-wing Israeli politicians are anticipating a military confrontation with Iran. (For example, here's an article about the timing of the selection of a new top dog in the Israeli Defense Forces; Benjamin Netanyahu is quoted as saying that the new leader "will have to straighten the army out, rebuild Israel's deterrence and prepare the defenses against threats, first and foremost, against Iran.")

Everything Clark said, in short, is true. What's more, everybody knows it's true. The worst that can truthfully be said about Clark is that he expressed himself in a slightly odd way. This, it seems clear, he did because it's a sensitive issue and he worried that if he spoke plainly he'd be accused of trafficking in anti-Semitism. So he spoke unclearly and, for his trouble, got ... accused of trafficking in anti-Semitism.

James Taranto, who writes the hack "Best of the Web" column for the online version of The Wall Street Journal's hack editorial page, likened Clark's views on this to the notorious anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Scott Johnson of the influential and moronic right-wing Power Line blog argued that "Clark's comments are not simply 'anti-Israel,'" and asked "[i]s it a only a matter only of parochial concern to American Jews that they are now to be stigmatized without consequence in the traditional disgusting terms -- terms that used to result in eviction from the precincts of polite society -- by a major figure in the Democratic Party?"

Needless to say, Clark did not stigmatize American Jews. Indeed, he went out of his way to note that the American Jewish community is divided on the issue. Michael Barone's sneering attack on Clark also managed, almost incidentally, to reveal Barone's own understanding that Clark's remarks are substantially correct. Barone observed that it's "interesting to see a Democratic presidential hopeful denounce 'the New York money people,' people whom Clark spent some time with in 2003-04."

And, indeed, it is interesting, for demonstrating the bizarre rules of the road in discussing America's Israel policy. If you're offering commentary that's supportive of America's soi-disant "pro-Israel" forces, as Barone was, it's considered perfectly acceptable to note, albeit elliptically, that said forces are influential in the Democratic Party in part because they contribute large sums of money to Democratic politicians who are willing to toe the line. If, by contrast, one observes this fact by way of criticizing the influence of "pro-Israel" forces, you're denounced as an anti-Semite.

Needless to say, the increasingly ridiculous Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, was swiftly located in order to ply his trademark tactic of accusing people of anti-Semitism that he knows perfectly well aren't anti-Semites. As The Jewish Week reported, "The ADL leader told Clark that he had 'bought into conspiratorial bigotry' that increasingly sees Israel, Jews and American Jewish organizations as the driving force behind U.S. involvement in Iraq and Iran." What's more, "Foxman said Clark’s comments are particularly worrisome because of the context, coming in the wake of," among other things, "a book by former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who accused Israel of pushing for war with Iran."

The context, I would say, is worrisome. "Israel" is not a unitary actor, but clearly some Israelis are pushing for war with Iran. More to the point, many American Jewish organizations are pushing for war with Iran. And before Foxman comes to lock me up, he might want to check out his own outfit's website, complete with a section on "The Iranian Threat." Meanwhile, over on AIPAC's site we can learn about the "escalating threat" from Iran. A group called The Israel Project has an Iran Press Kit page, linking only to alarmist takes on the Iranian nuclear issue and to a hawks-only set of expert sources. (Shockingly, none of these organizations are especially concerned that Israel won't join the Non-Proliferation Treaty Framework.)

For another example, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs gave Senator John McCain its "Scoop" Jackson Award in December; in his remarks accepting the award, McCain argued that "[t]he path to future success for Israel will not be an easy one, and there will be a number of difficult issues. Foremost on many minds, is, of course, Iran." He characterized "Tehran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons" as "an unacceptable risk" -- language clearly designed to lay the groundwork for war.

With this last bit, we not only see the accuracy of Clark's remark, but, once again, the stunning hypocrisy of the anti-anti-Semitism brigades. It's clear that McCain, just like Clark, sees American Jewish organizations as key players in the Iran-hawk movement in the United States, and also that he sees concern for Israeli security as motivating those groups. Nobody, however, is going to label McCain a Jew-hating conspiracy theorist -- because, of course, McCain wants to help these groups push the United States into a military confrontation with Iran. Thus, McCain gets an award, and Clark gets called an anti-Semite.

Since Clark would like to have a future in the politics game, he ended up backing down from his remarks, explaining he didn't mean what he said. Mission accomplished for those who smeared him. But would I ever suggest that Democrats have been unduly timid on the Iran issue because they fear crossing powerful "pro-Israel" institutions? Never. Only anti-Semites think stuff like that.

Copyright © 2007 by The American Prospect, Inc. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to

The Extra-Legal Executive

Friday's three big news stories -- the elections in Iraq, the president's flip-flop on John McCain's anti-torture amendment, and the revelation that the administration ordered the National Security Agency to conduct domestic surveillance without warrants -- brought home in an unusually poignant manner one of the paradoxes at the heart of the past several years: The same group of people who've decided they're on a historic mission to spread democracy and liberal values around the world seem, based on their conduct at home, to have a very weak grasp of what those values entail.

The surveillance matter is disturbing not only, or even especially, for the casual disregard for civil liberty and Anglo-American tradition it entails. Rather, the main point here is about the law. It was universally understood on Sept. 10, 2001, that, wisely or unwisely, intelligence agencies could not conduct this sort of operation without first gaining approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Nothing happened the following day to change that reality.

To be sure, events occurred that caused many people to re-evaluate American policy in a number of regards, arguably including domestic surveillance policy, but the fact remains that the law is the law and there's a specified procedure for changing the law. As we recall from civics class, bills are supposed to be introduced in the two houses of Congress, voted on in committee and then before the full body, sent to the White House, and then either signed or vetoed.

Faced with the pesky need to get warrants, however, the Bush administration chose another path -- it simply issued a directive saying the old policy was out and a new policy was in. On hand to help rationalize things was John Yoo, the very same lawyer who provided the rationalizations required when the president wanted to start ignoring domestic and international law with regard to torture without getting any of the laws changed.

And if it was Yoo's work that made McCain's effort to close down Bush-created loopholes in torture law, then it's the continuation of the Yoo mentality that makes me pessimistic about how much good McCain will do. The president, quite clearly, didn't surrender to McCain's view at the end of last week because of a genuine change of heart. Instead, as in his previous surrender to the Arizona senator over campaign finance reform, he dropped what he had previously portrayed as a point of high principle for reasons of crass political expediency. Thus, we still have in office a president who believes in the utility and overriding moral necessity of torture, and a president who feels that -- at least in matters of national security -- he's not bound by the law.

The debate over the torture amendment has obscured this fact: Five years ago no serious person believed torture was permitted under American law. It happened not because it was legal, but because the president chose to believe the law was no constraint, or that, insofar as it was a constraint, it was a constraint to be waived off through such expedients as holding prisoners in the legal null zone of Guantanamo Bay, off-the-books facilities in Eastern Europe, or secretly shipping people off to Syria.

Meanwhile, the common thread in Bush's three nominees for the Supreme Court has been an extreme deference to executive authority or, in the case of the unlamented Harriet Miers, simple deference to the person of George W. Bush. This is important not merely for its practical implications over the remaining years of Bush's presidency, but as a further reminder of the mindset prevailing in the White House -- one which says that the American government is unduly troubled by the need for the president's actions to be legal, rather than merely grounded in the officeholder's much-touted moral clarity.

Problems in Iraq probably can't be directly traced to the administration's disdain for liberalism at home. Rather, the issue is that when the president says he wants to bring the blessings of democracy to the Middle East, he seems to have something rather different in mind from what normal people would espouse. Last January, it became a bit of a cliché to observe of Iraq that one election does not a democracy make. The administration, however, actually does seem to espouse the straw-man view that the key difference between democracy and its absence is whether or not people go to the polls to vote from time to time.

By this standard, of course, Vladimir Putin counts as a hero of freedom. This may go some way toward explaining Condoleezza Rice's bizarre claim in a recent op-ed that the Bush administration is building "a balance of power that favors freedom" in alliance with, among others, China and Russia. Certainly it helps one to understand why they think an Iraqi election whose results will pit a coalition of Baathists against a coalition of would-be theocrats into competition to form an alliance with two Kurdish parties who've elected to divide Kurdistan into two fiefdoms rather than compete at the polls will result in the dawning of a new day for liberty.

The United States, fortunately, has longstanding traditions and institutions, and despite the best efforts of The National Review and Fox News, people are reasonably attached to a more robust view of democracy where laws get followed and the president doesn't get to just make things up. Iraq is not so blessed, so while the insurgency almost certainly won't "win" and take over the country, neither will democracy be blooming for quite some time in any recognizable form.

Comparing Extremists

Democrats, you could argue, lose elections because they're in thrall to the extremist views of their base, especially on social issues. Take abortion: Many Democrats think that, if a pregnant teenager is considering an abortion, that should be up to her rather than to her parents. This is unpopular in some segments of the electorate. Republicans, by contrast, take the "mainstream" view that Roe v. Wade was an act of judicial overreaching and that controversial questions about abortion should be handled by the states.

Except for some Republicans.

Those Republicans believe in the Human Life Amendment, which would grant fetuses and embryos the legal status of people. Since no such amendment has passed, we can't be sure what the consequences would be. But if fetuses are people, entitled to treatment under the 14th Amendment's "equal protection" clause, then letting people have abortions would clearly be unacceptable. The procedure would need to be banned. And not just banned, but punished the way any other killing of a person would be: as murder. Perhaps the women or doctors (or both) involved would be subjected to the death penalty. Equal protection, after all.

Stem cell research, meanwhile, would be a thing of the past. Current controversies center on the question of federal funding. But if embryos are people, then the research itself must be banned. And who knows what would happen to in-vitro fertilization?

So there are extremists on both sides, then, but there's still a difference. Liberals demand total obeisance to the orthodoxy. Sure, Harry Reid is pro-life. And, to be sure, he's minority leader of the Senate and therefore the senior politician in the Democratic Party, but conventional wisdom says otherwise, so we can just ignore this. Human Life Amendment-supporting conservatives, on the other hand, are kept quietly in the closet. They get trivial jobs like White House Counsel where their responsibilities include advising the president on questions of constitutional law. And, of course, the current White House Counsel was just nominated to be an associate justice on the Supreme Court.

On the other hand, when you consider that conservative discontent overwhelmingly focuses on the worry that Harriet Miers might not be conservative enough you may begin to guess that things have gone awry. This business about embryos being people also pops up in such obscure contexts as the Republican Party platform which states "we support a human life amendment to the Constitution and we endorse legislation to make it clear that the 14th Amendment's protections apply to unborn children." Who knew?

I was doing some reading on the Internet last week and found an article which said abortion was bad because its legality "hamper[s] courtship and marriage." Marriage, as you know, is important to conservatives. Liberals want to ruin it by letting gays and lesbians get in on the action, which is extreme and unpopular. Conservatives want to strengthen marriage, and banning abortion is part of that. According to the same article "effective female contraception," "the changing educational and occupational status of women," and the destigmatization of divorce are also to blame. We've got to change that stuff. Men, the article says, are bound to "avidly [seek] sexual pleasure prior to and outside of marriage" but we need to return to a time when one distinguished "between women one fooled around with and women one married, between a woman of easy virtue and a woman of virtue simply."

The author of the piece is one Leon Kass, and sits on the President's Council on Bioethics. It appeared in Boundless, a webzine you probably haven't heard of, but that's published by Focus on the Family and targeted at college students. Focus on the Family is a multi-million dollar enterprise run by James Dobson, an influential evangelical leader who just happens to be a key source of support for the Miers nomination.

Some would say this goes to show that some pretty influential people on the right have some pretty extreme views. But with the conventional wisdom saying otherwise, who am I to disagree?

Choice Shtick

This article is reprinted from The American Prospect.

Once upon a time, there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and we were invading in order to destroy them. Then they turned out not to exist. Fortunately enough, it turned out that George W. Bush was only pretending to think the weapons of mass destruction were the reason to invade. Really it was all about the freedom from the beginning. You just didn't notice. Similarly, as the president's case that Social Security is in crisis continues to crumble, conservatives are busy ginning up new reasons to phase the program out and replace it with a system of mandatory investments in private stock funds.

As George Will put it on Jan. 20 in The Washington Post, the really important reasons for destroying the most successful program in American history are "philosophic." It's all about choice. All about freedom. Similar arguments have issued forth recently from the pens of Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Rauch and David Brooks. My friend Will Wilkinson, recently a graduate student in philosophy and now a policy analyst at the Cato Institute, ground zero for privatization, recently recommended Daniel Shapiro's old Cato paper "The Moral Case for Social Security Privatization," which argues that privitizing social security is all about "maximizing individual choice and liberty." As Will put it in a recent Newsweek column, think of today's kids who own "iPods, in which they can store as many as 10,000 songs of their choosing, which they can hear whenever they choose. Then try to explain to them why they should not be allowed to put a portion of their Social Security taxes in tax-personal [sic] retirement accounts."

Well, I've only got an iPod Mini, which only stores about 1,000 songs, according to Apple's estimates. In fact, though, I've got a considerable number of very short songs by bands like NOFX and the Ramones, which take up less disc space, letting me put more than 1,000 on. And this, of course, is part of the beauty of choice. Me, I love "Judy is a Punk," so there it is on my iPod. My dad, not so much. He likes a lot of Rolling Stones songs I consider overwrought. And thanks to the magic of choice, he gets to put the songs he likes on his iPod, while I listen to the songs I like. Choice, you see, is a good thing.

The important thing to keep in mind, however, is that Social Security privatization isn't like that at all. Cato's privatization maestro, Michael Tanner, has his problems, but he isn't given to rhetorical flights of fancy. His plan, as described on the Cato web site, would eliminate half of Social Security's revenue stream, requiring massive cuts in guaranteed benefits. In exchange, you would be forced to save 6.2 percent of your wages for your retirement in an individual account. "Allowable investment options for the individual accounts," Tanner writes, "will be based on a 3-tier system: a centralized, pooled collection and holding point; a limited series of investment options with a lifecycle fund as a default mechanism; and a wider range of investment options for individuals who accumulate a minimum level in their accounts."

Not really as much fun as an iPod. Meanwhile, "At retirement, individuals will be given an option of purchasing a family annuity or taking a programmed withdrawal."

Under the current system, 6.2 percent of my paycheck vanishes each pay cycle and goes to the government; when I retire, I'll get a fixed sum of money every month from the government. Under Tanner's plan, 6.2 percent of my paycheck vanishes each pay cycle and will go to a private investment manager; when I retire, I'll get a fixed sum of money every month, either from the investment manager or from the insurance company I buy my annuity from. The difference – Will's grand triumph for the cause of human freedom – is that I get to pick which private investment managers handles the money during the interim.

As cause for a moral crusade, this is silly – on a par with mandating that, at great expense, the Internal Revenue Service allow people to get their tax forms on seven different colors of paper and then insisting that people complaining about the price hate freedom. It's a choice that's not worth anything to the choosers. When it comes to music, the beauty of choice is that tastes differ, so when we each get to do our own thing, we all wind up happier. But the outputs of all the different private accounts and, indeed, traditional Social Security are the same: monthly checks. The only thing at issue is the size of the checks.

Lots of people might choose songs that I wouldn't choose. Letting us all pick has real value. But all of us want the same thing out of our checks: high numbers. The choice, as such, has no value. The only thing that's really at issue is whether privatization would make people's checks bigger. The answer, on average, once all the costs are considered, is no.

While privatizing Social Security would only trivially increase individual freedom, it would massively increase individual risk. The median return to a private account would be about the same as the median Social Security benefit, but actual returns would vary significantly around that median according to a variety of factors including, most prominently, market conditions over which you have no control in the year in which you happen to retire. Some people would do much better than they do under the current system, but many would do much worse. In practice, this would restrict, rather than expand, the choices available to individuals. Under the current system, Social Security's guaranteed benefits allow middle-income people to invest additional money fairly aggressively – exchanging a small risk of catastrophe for a high average payoff.

Under privatization, no such thing would be possible, and middle-class people would need to invest their money very conservatively. Rather than chasing the elusive freedom of private accounts, we should be looking for ways to expand further down the economic ladder the freedom to invest that many Americans already enjoy. Something along the lines of Gene Sperling's plan for a "universal 401(k)," where generous federal matching grants to poor investors would allow low-income workers to build up savings, sounds like a good idea to me. If conservatives are really interested in expanding choice, opportunity and ownership, they'll get behind the idea as well.

Getting Kicks Out of Iraq

Considering that he's the sort of man who's not above pretending to like Cheez Whiz in order to gain a fleeting political advantage, it should come as no surprise to learn that George W. Bush thinks of the Olympics less as a celebration of athleticism than as yet another opportunity for electioneering. Thus, while the unofficial Bush campaign was busy spreading lies and baseless innuendo about John Kerry's war record, the official campaign launched a new ad lauding the president's supposed success in spreading the blessings of freedom around the world.

It was a good choice. Americans like the Olympics, and because our men's soccer team failed to qualify, the field was open for the United States to root for some other nation. And, so far, the Iraqis are doing well. So well, in fact, that Matt Drudge (a key player in the aforementioned unofficial campaign and hence someone potentially in a position to know) has reported that the White House is contemplating a surprise trip to Athens, Greece, so the president can watch the team and further associate his failed administration with the players' success. What's more, Iraq's Olympians suffered uniquely at the hands of Saddam Hussein's son Uday, making them an excellent example of the undeniable fact that some good has come of the Iraq War. The charge that Bush's critics harbor a secret nostalgia for Baath Party rule can be rebutted, but, like many things, the argument is not amenable to explication in a 30-second television spot, so it looked like the campaign was headed toward making some modest gains off the issue.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the medal stand: Someone asked Iraq's players how they feel.

"Iraq as a team does not want Mr. Bush to use us for the presidential campaign," Salih Sadir told Sports Illustrated. Ahmed Manajid elaborated: "How will [Bush] meet his god having slaughtered so many men and women? He has committed so many crimes." Coach Ahmed Hamad was more diplomatic. "My problems are not with the American people," he said. "They are with what America has done in Iraq: Destroy everything. The American army has killed so many people in Iraq. What is freedom when I go to the [national] stadium and there are shootings on the road?" Manajid went on to explain that if he weren't so busy with the team, he would join the Sunni resistance.

This is the sound of a counterinsurgency gone horribly wrong. The time-honored method of guerilla warfare, whether undertaken for causes admirable, despicable, or somewhere in between, is to attack a stronger adversary not in order to defeat him but in order to provoke reprisals. The guerillas then melt into the surrounding population, ensuring that counterattacks will inflict pain not only on their forces but on the people at large, thus alienating them from the established authorities. Sympathizers become co-belligerents and fence-sitters become sympathizers. The guerillas suffer losses, but also a recruiting boom, while the increasingly despised counterinsurgents lose credibility and the ability to govern effectively.

Why is Manajid so upset? Well, it's simple enough: He's from Fallujah, where U.S. forces have launched many attacks, one of which killed his cousin Omar. It's an understandable sentiment: To be sure, Omar was killed because he joined the insurgency; nevertheless, if someone killed my cousin, I'd be pretty upset about it. And the late Omar Jabbar al-Aziz doubtless had more family members than the one anti-American midfielder. Other cousins, perhaps, along with some siblings and in-laws. Children, maybe, or parents who are still alive. Nephews, uncles, and nieces. Certainly he had friends. And none of those people is going to be very happy that he was killed. Nor will those who were merely injured by U.S. attacks feel very warm and fuzzy about the red, white, and blue. Nor will their friends and family. Nor those who've had their homes destroyed, or merely damaged. More than a year of sporadic fighting, bombing, and shelling has a way of making a lot of people mad. And when a lot of people get mad at you, some of them decide to get even.

Now war means fighting, and fighting means killing, so one can hardly blame the U.S. military for having created a fair amount of wreckage in the course of its activities. This is what happens in a war, and, in fact, Americans are more fastidious about it than most (see, for example, what the Russians did to Grozny). But the fact that things could be worse is little consolation to someone who has seen his brother killed, his best friend lose a leg, his cousin's house destroyed, the last resting place of his dead relatives bombed, or the holy places where he worships damaged. If you want to fight a war, there's no alternative but to do a certain amount of these things; but if you want to win it, you need to do them without making everybody hate you. That means overwhelming political credibility – a widespread belief on the part of the population that your forces are acting with their best interests at heart.

Among Iraq's Arab majority, who had known nothing from their Anglo American occupiers but a history of imperial conquest, war, betrayal, and sanctions, we did not have that kind of credibility when we went in. And instead of taking advantage of the goodwill generated by Hussein's removal to get some, the Bush administration squandered the opportunity with a series of errors brilliantly described by former CPA adviser Larry Diamond in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

You can't win a war without killing people, and our forces are remarkably good at doing so. What's more, despite it all, U.S. casualties thus far have been remarkably low by historical standards. Still, killing people does no good if the only result is to increase the number of people fighting against you, and that's exactly what's happening right now. As the most recent edition of the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index revealed, despite killing or detaining thousands of insurgents between April and July, the number of fighters arrayed against us has quadrupled rather than gone down. We can sustain this pace of "progress" – stay the course, as the president likes to say – for quite awhile, but doing so will accomplish nothing. It's too bad that Kerry doesn't have a simple five-point plan that will resolve the situation easily, but if there were an obvious way to get from where we are now to where we want to be, he wouldn't have been opposed to many of the missteps that have landed us in the current mess.

The question the American people need to be debating is who stands the best chance of resolving a situation that's destined to be extremely problematic for whichever candidate finds himself in the White House next January. Is it the team that's bungling put us here, or is it the other guys? The ones who lost almost $9 billion in reconstruction funds, or their opponents? That's a debate the president would rather not have. Hence the smears, the fairy tales about accountants scheming to raise your taxes, and the happy talk about the Iraqi Olympic team. It's a dirty trick, but it just might work. What it won't do is solve the problems that got the president into his electoral jam – and our soldiers fighting a war they can't win – in the first place.


Happy Holidays!