Right’s Wrong On Being Left

By Leonard Fein

Published June 25, 2004, issue of June 25, 2004.

All right, let’s say that I am wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. Let’s say that in the November elections, America’s Jews will indeed abandon their traditional loyalty and vote for the Republican nominee for president. As I’ve written fairly often in recent months, I see no reason to think that will be so — that in defiance of precedent and common sense, this will be the election where the quadrennial prediction that the (Democratic) party’s over will finally prove out. Such public opinion surveys as I have seen all suggest that we’ll end up pretty much where we’ve mostly been: some 20-25% of us voting for George W. Bush, the vast majority voting for John Kerry.

But then why is there such a buzz about the prospect of a much larger Jewish vote for Bush? Is there really a semi-hidden groundswell? Are we in fact lurching, or ambling, or sidling, or skidding, rightward?

Apparently, there are some analysts and some Republican loyalists who think that’s so — or, at least, whose wishful thinking issues in wishful predicting. They don’t have data, whether hard or mushy, to verify their prognosis; instead, they rely on what they see as the logic of the case. What logic? Why, the issue that matters most to us, they assert, is Israel, and surely no president has been a better friend to Israel than George W. Bush has been.

That’s what the buzz boils down to, and the proposition therefore warrants examination. After all, the fact that Bush and Prime Minister Sharon have been so cozy does not in and of itself warrant placing the incumbent ahead of his presidential predecessors. What about Jimmy Carter, who, in his one term in office, did, after all, broker a peace between Egypt and Israel? Or Bill Clinton, who devoted more time to a resolution of the conflict than any other president? Or, for that matter, Harry Truman, who did, over State Department objections, recognize Israel? In any event, such efforts at ranking are rather silly. Israel does not need “the best,” whatever “best” means; it needs good.

Bush’s alleged goodness rests on several elements. He has given Sharon a very long leash; he has frozen out Yasser Arafat; he has viewed Israel as a real partner in the war against terrorism; most notably, he has vowed to defeat terrorism, and his Iraq initiative is evidence that he means to keep that vow.

It is this last element, the Iraq adventure, that puzzles me: Iraq as a reason to support the president? Can those who take that position be serious?

Back when the nation was debating whether or not to go to war in order to “liberate” Iraq — as we now know, the administration had made up its mind many months earlier — my friends in Israel were urging us to get on with the job. Iraq, after all, posed a serious threat to Israel, a threat considerably more lethal than that posed by Israel’s more proximate neighbors. The prospect that the full might of America would be brought to bear on Saddam Hussein’s regime was nearly intoxicating. Even if one did not share the president’s stated hope that a free and democratic Iraq would lead to a massive reformation of the entire Middle East, surely a success in Iraq would be a gain for freedom and, for Israel, a giant step forward toward real security.

But we were required then, as now, to ask the obvious question: What of a failure in Iraq? How certain could we be that the adventure would go smoothly? Remember “shock and awe”? Even then, we knew that planning for the morning after had been entirely inadequate. And now we know as well that of 50 “precision-guided” rocket attacks against specific Iraqi leaders, attacks based on specific intelligence information, we missed 50 times. And we know many other things, from the ongoing killing to Abu Ghraib, from the looting then to the sabotage now — from the absence of weapons of mass destruction to the absence of meaningful links between Al Qaeda and Saddam — that are, to put it ever so mildly, disconcerting. Iraq is not the slam-dunk that was foretold; it is not even clear that we will win a squeaky victory. Knowing what we now know, the whole enterprise seems an awful misadventure, costly in lives, in treasure and in America’s stature in the world.

Very nearly all that we know now was knowable then, had anyone in the Bush administration been sober enough to contemplate the downside possibilities. Giddy friends of Israel, flushed with the anticipated American success, now must be feeling renewed anxiety: An American loss in Iraq, defined as a failure to hand sovereignty over to a plausibly democratic regime, an Iraq marked by continuing significant violence, will substantially weaken the value of America’s support of Israel. Nor can we safely ignore the postwar bitterness against those in the administration who have been seen as wanting this war on the basis of its presumed benefits to Israel — against them, and against the cause that energizes them.

Accordingly, Bush and his people — who should have thought this through ever so much more thoroughly — hardly can be praised for their boldness or their resolve. With our hindsight, that much is plain. Of any administration, we are entitled to expect not only hindsight but also foresight.

Yet in the case of Iraq, we are in the hands of stumble-bums. And now the Jews will abandon their history, will turn from all the domestic failures, and reward the bumbling and the lies? Not bloody likely.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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