Progressives should join Jews on Iran strategy

Iran’s nuclear ambitions have emerged not only as a foreign policy issue but recently have become an American political issue, as well.

In response to the news offensive
by the neoconservative movement and the Bush administration threatening military action against Iran and without backing any real new diplomatic initiatives, the new progressives have made opposing pre-emptive military action against Iran by the United States a major issue.

There is a perception among progressives and liberals that these neoconservatives are marching us toward another war.

According to Newsweek, Iran has eclipsed Iraq as the primary issue of concern of membership. Democratic presidential candidate, former Sen. John Edwards, accused Sen. Hillary Clinton of supporting the neoconservative line because of her vote for the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment, which supported making Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a “terrorist organization.”

Much of this angst comes from a distrust of neoconservatives, who recklessly pushed for attacking Iraq because of its elusive “weapons of mass destruction,” many of whom are now beating the drums for military action against Iran. (I could argue that Iran would not be as powerful as it is today were it not for our policies in Iraq, but that is a discussion for another time). Noted neocons such as Norman Podhertz and Daniel Pipes, each of whom led the charge into Iraq, have openly advocated military action against Iran without mentioning where the resources would come from (the U.S. military is already stretched perilously thin fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan).

To support their calls for military action, these neocons have cited the threat of Iran getting a nuclear weapon, as well as their support of destabilizing Shiite militias in Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Some also have noted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejads’ threats to “wipe Israel off the map” as another example of how Iran has sought to destabilize the region and increase its hegemony in the Middle East.

While their concerns about Iran may be well founded, bipartisan and public support of the neocons’ proposed solutions is not there. Democratic pro-Israel hawks, such as Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), have called military action against Iran “unadvisable and untenable,” stating that military action without genuine diplomacy or congressional authorization would dissolve what little good will the United States has left after the debacle in Iraq.

House Foreign Relations Committee chairman Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) has suggested a combination of sanctions and diplomatic solutions, authoring legislation to expand sanctions against the Iranian military, while proposing an international nuclear fuel consortium to control the use of nuclear fuels by Third World nations and to prevent nuclear proliferation. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee also supports sanctions over military action, and there is a general perception that Iraq has stretched our military readiness to its limit.

This confluence of opinion between the pro-Israel community and progressives should be an opportunity for both sides. However, instead of supporting sanctions or diplomacy, many of these progressives have instead decided to turn the argument into a wholesale opposition to any action against Iran without acknowledging the real threats, making their opposition look as irrational as the neocons’ Rambo approach.

Yet despite the overwhelming opposition to military action, are the progressives doing themselves any favors by opposing any military action without at least acknowledging the threat of Iran?

Many Jewish progressives wrestle with this dichotomy and have struggled to reconcile their opposition to war with the threats that exist. Eli Pariser, executive director of, is Jewish, as is progressive financier George Soros. As of late, has been notably responsible in dealing with the Iran issue, tempering its message so as to avoid a drumbeat of irresponsible pacifism. Soros has been vocal in opposing the spread of nuclear technology to Iran but has also sought to increase dialogue with Iran through his Soros Open Institute (the Iranian government arrested two staff members, Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh, on charges of spreading Western ideas in Iran). Both Pariser and Soros seem to be searching for a way to oppose the neoconservative message, while acknowledging that Iran must be dealt with.

In order to be effective, progressives need to do more than just shout “no pre-emptive war.” The Jewish community is overwhelmingly supportive of progressive values, is concerned about Iran but also overwhelmingly disagrees with the rest of the neoconservative foreign policy agenda. According to a Pew Research Poll in 2006, 77 percent of U.S. Jews oppose the Iraq War, up from 75 percent in 2005.

Iran is clearly a threat to the region and should it actually develop a nuclear weapon, it would be a threat to the world. Iran’s refusal to let the International Atomic Energy Agency have full access to the country raises the question of its true intent. Further, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard acts as a government within a government, running its own businesses to fund international covert operations in Lebanon and Iraq, with almost no oversight by the government or its implied consent.

Progressives need to reach out to their natural allies in the Jewish community by acknowledging that the threats of nuclear proliferation and international terrorism exist and support the same reasoned, international approach of sanctions and international pressure that has helped bring the North Korean nuclear program under control.

From 1956-1968, progressives and Jews were a powerful alliance in supporting the advancement of civil rights and ending racial discrimination. This combination also was the core of the opposition to the Vietnam War from 1967 to 1973.

This alliance also worked in California to pass AB 221, for which Progressives and Jews bridged the gap to support targeted sanctions against Iran’s oil industry as a means of putting economic pressure on Iran to open up to the world and be responsible. The liberal-leaning Anti-Defamation League and conservative-evangelical Israel-Christian Nexus came together to support the bill.

Progressives should learn a lesson from this approach and step in where the neoconservatives have failed by supporting a responsible opposition to both military action and Iran at the same time. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has followed a similar strategy as he has gone on a world tour, meeting with world leaders to educate them on what is happening in Iran and build a consensus approach. Israel needs to defend itself against Iran, but it knows the price of war, and its leadership has chosen to pursue a consensus approach. After Iraq, Americans now know the price of war, too.

Andrew Lachman is the president of Democrats for Israel Los Angeles and a member of the executive committee of the California Democratic Party.

Bush’s ‘neocons’: far from the best and the brightest

A significant shift in American political history occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s when a group of “Cold War intellectuals,” a number of whom were Jewish, defected from the liberal mainstream of the Democratic Party.

Alienated by the anti-war movement and by what they saw as ambivalence on the Democratic left about Israel’s security, they first coalesced around the presidential candidacy of centrist Democrat Henry “Scoop” Jackson in 1972.

Most eventually moved over to the Republican Party under President Richard Nixon and his foreign policy alter ego, Henry Kissinger. Among them were Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and Ben Wattenberg. Some of today’s neocons, including Paul Wolfowitz, Eliot Abrams and Douglas Feith got their start with the Jackson team.

While they were small in number, their intellectual influence was substantial. Their defection from the Democrats helped stamp the post-Vietnam Democratic Party as “soft on defense” and added heft to Nixon’s administration. (This came despite Nixon’s known antipathy to Jews, so vividly revealed later in the White House tapes.) Nixon’s highly pragmatic foreign policy led to major agreements with the Soviet Union and a historic opening to the People’s Republic of China. He was supportive of Israel during the traumatic 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Cold War intellectuals felt vindicated.

Fast forward to 2007, and we see what has happened to this neoconservative movement. We find Bill Kristol, Irving Kristol’s son and editor of the Weekly Standard; Paul Wolfowitz, just ousted from the World Bank and safely landed at the American Enterprise Institute; Eliot Abrams, back in government after his deep involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal; and Douglas Feith, one of the architects of the Iraq war. Scooter Libby, just released from his prison destiny by an indulgent president, is a member in good standing. They have a friend and ally in Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Today’s neocons are far from the best and the brightest.

They are largely amateur armchair warriors given to cheap rhetoric and bombast. They toss around “regime change” as if governments will fall when they snap their fingers. While the Cold War intellectuals may have been arrogant, they were right about some important things. In particular, they championed the restoration of a bipartisan Cold War consensus that had fractured under the strain of the Vietnam War and challenged Democrats to avoid turning opposition to the war into opposition to a strong national defense. Today’s neocons, by contrast, have managed to be wrong about, basically, everything: that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that we would be greeted as liberators in Iraq, that the war would cost American taxpayers not a dime and that the struggle would be over in months.

Unlike the proudly realistic Cold War intellectuals, the neocons are idealists, scorning those who question their ideas as “reality based.” They see Israel as a key part of their global plan, both helping America in the Middle East (where, conveniently, oil is plentiful), and guaranteeing Israel’s security under an umbrella of unchecked, unilateral American power. They ignore Israel’s need to negotiate complex arrangements to survive in a very tough neighborhood, while leaning on its big brother in Washington.

Undeterred by the failure of the Iraq war they helped create, the neocons are now trying to drag the United States and Israel into a war with Iran, and potentially into a global war with much of the Islamic world. Sen. Lieberman says that Iran has already started the war with the United States by funding Hezbollah in Lebanon and by allegedly supporting insurgents in Iraq, all the while proclaiming — against all evidence — the success of the surge in Iraq. Lieberman is talking up the value of bombing Iran. The hallmarks of the contemporary neocons are an indifference to the facts on the ground combined with a belligerent and bellicose stance toward the world. How did it come to this?

The strength of the original neoconservative movement was pragmatism in contrast to what they perceived as the idealistic thinking of the peace movement. They called Democrats naive on foreign policy and charged that they neither appreciated the balance of power in world affairs nor understood the threat of force as an alternative to the use of force. They admired Nixon’s ability to play Russia against China and to project enough force to convince adversaries to negotiate. This was a lesson that Democratic president Bill Clinton applied successfully in stopping the genocide in Bosnia.

But while the Democrats moved back toward the center on foreign policy, the neocons became more radical. Even in the beginning, some were devoted to blocking d├ętente with the Soviet Union and ratcheting up the Soviet threat beyond what the facts warranted. Some joined the first Bush administration, where they argued that at the conclusion of the Gulf War, the president should have taken Baghdad and overthrown Saddam Hussein. Unlike the first President Bush, they refused to consider the impact on regional stability or the balance of power of the ouster of Saddam’s regime. It never mattered to them that the United States was using Saddam to contain Iran. On the outs with the president, who did not favor their aggressive views, they bided their time in conservative think tanks during the Clinton years. They became even more adept at exaggerating global threats, from Iraq to the Islamic world as a whole.

Their ideas grew more and more expansive, until their Project for a New American Century unveiled a grand vision of a dominant America astride a passive world, dictating terms to one and all, taking resources as it wished. All they needed was a president who would back their plan, despite its obvious and near-lunatic flaws. With the accession of George W. Bush, and more importantly, Dick Cheney, in 2001, they finally had leaders whose arrogance matched their vision.

And so they remain in the good graces of Bush and Cheney, despite the tatters they have all made of American foreign policy. As long as Cheney remains the dominant force in the administration, the neocons can survive the political implosion of the White House. In fact, the president risked substantial political fallout to short-circuit the legal process and keep Cheney’s aide Libby out of jail.