Two additional pro-Israel groups have weighed in on whether the U.S. Senate should ratify the new START weapons reduction treaty with Russia since I wrote this story: the American Jewish Committee and the Emergency Committee for Israel.
To recap, the administration and two prominent Jewish Democrats, Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Carl levin (D-Mich.), are asking pro-Israel groups to lobby Republican senators reluctant to ratify the treaty.
The treaty passed handily in committee months ago, 14-4. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) has in recent weeks raised new concerns about the treaty; he says it reduces the U.S. military posture in Europe without a verifiable quid pro quo.
The Obama administration, furious, has accused the GOP of outright political gamesmanship, saying the Republicans smell blood in the wake of the Democrats huge loss of the U.S. House of Representatives. The word on the street, the Dems say, is to cut off Obama at the knees, whatever it takes. Notably — because he’s a respected soldier, not a pol — Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appears to agree, and wants the treaty, yesterday.
The pro-Israel groups come into it because the Democrats and the White House are arguing that, without START, it’s harder to get Russia to play along in isolating Iran.
So, back to today’s news, here’s the AJC, in a letter to all 100 senators:
The U.S.-Russian relationship is central to the effort to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Failing to ratify New START could undercut U.S.-led international efforts to exert maximum political and economic pressure on Iran.
The ECI reacts to a letter from Schumer and Levin asking AIPAC to back ratification:
Your letter—an effort to pressure an organization to lobby on a matter far outside its expertise and area of concern—is a disgrace. We’ve rarely seen Senators stoop to this kind of public bullying. AIPAC “cannot afford to stand on the sidelines?” What threat do you mean to convey by this statement?
It’s clear that defenders of the New START treaty (on which, needless to say, the Emergency Committee for Israel takes no position) are frantic to have it ratified in the lame duck session, and they apparently lack the votes to ram it through. But your desperation about New START does not justify behavior unworthy of Senators.
ECI also gripes that the letter is "public," making it more egregious, apparently because of its appearance in Ben Smith’s Politico column. However, there’s nothing in Ben’s post that suggests he got it from the senators — or that they wanted to make it public.
So, here’s the tally: The Anti Defamation League, the American Council for World Jewry, J Street, the National Jewish Democratic Council, AJC, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs* — all for. (*Updated.)
B’nai B’rith International thinks it may be a good idea.
ECI — Neither for nor against, but against the Schumer-Levin letter.
The Republican Jewish Coalition keeps tweeting links to opponents of ratification, but — though I’ve asked — has not issued a statement.
AIPAC is resolutely silent.
The Jewish Institue for National Security Affairs, unequivocally against. I’m quoting JINSA at length:
We will not join this effort. The appeal of the proposed treaty confounds us – particularly because we hold America’s security to be essential to our lives and freedoms as Jews. Why should the United States voluntarily restrain its ability to defend itself and its friends? And what does this treaty do to secure our nation and the peace of the world?
We have heard no satisfactory answer to either question. The particular complaints about New START, of which there are many, are waved aside. Instead, we are told that the real purpose of New START is to create a stronger U.S.-Russia bond in a broader international effort to restrain Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Such a justification is wrong. Iran’s nuclear ambitions are no secret; neither is Russia’s past efforts aiding that program.
We seriously question whether Russia is serious about stopping Iran, with or without New START. There is no reason why the United States should be required to sacrifice its own defense capabilities to inspire Russia to a greater degree of diplomatic fortitude. If Russia is indeed concerned with a nuclear-armed Iran to its immediate south, it should need no extra incentive to take the action necessary to stop it.
Moreover, while the threat of Iran is indeed grave and requires a broad and meaningful response, we do not believe in sacrificing our future nuclear and defense capabilities to reduce that threat. Indeed, our missile defense programs are precisely what we need to confront this threat and, in the worst case scenario, repel it. In short, the threat of Iran cannot be used as an excuse to give up one of our best defenses against Iran and others who seek the destruction of America and its allies.
I quote JINSA because, far and away, it is the only critique of the effort to corral Jewish groups into backing ratification that makes any sense. It is grounded in a) the utility of the treaty in reducing the threat against the United States and b) the utility of the treaty in getting Russia on board with Iran’s isolation.
Each of the critics is shocked, shocked that the political class would pressure the lobbying class to take on an issue not organic to the lobby’s interest.
As for Jewish groups that might be tempted to wade in on START, they also need to understand that the push to pass the treaty before the end of the year in Congress’s lame duck session smacks of the sort of partisanship that groups like AIPAC and the ADL ought to avoid.
The Obama administration, which has had a rocky relationship with Israel and with pro-Israel American Jews, took an extraordinary step yesterday. After inducing a number of Jewish groups, which rarely comment on non-Israel issues, to back the New START treaty, it appears to have prompted Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to apply pressure on AIPAC, the most influential pro-Israel group on the Hill. Moreover, the senators, in a public power play, released the letter to executive director Howard Kohr. An experienced Israel hand tells me, "Well, they of course claim there is a direct link to Israeli security. But, no, this must be very rare." A Capitol Hill adviser from another office says "I’ve never seen this done with AIPAC on a non-Israel issue." Other pro-Israel activists are alarmed. A critic of the administration’s stance on the settlement freeze e-mails me, "Isn’t AIPAC supposed to be lobbying senators, not the other way around?
Rubin’s critic of the administration, bizarrely, imagines a one-way relationship — AIPAC lobbying senators, not vice versa — that dovetails with Walt-Mearsheimer imaginings about how pols take dictates from AIPAC.
Let’s call this notion "pols pressuring lobbyists is extraordinary" and pick it apart as a fantasy, from broadest to narrowest perspectives:
Government has for decades given interest groups marching orders in exchange for access.
The mega-example: Tom DeLay’s K Street Project was not merely about lobbies adopting GOP ideas, it was about hiring GOP staff and firing Dems. Chuck Muth, defending the project in Human Events, summed it up this way:
There is nothing sinister about the K Street Project. The problem the Left and the mainstream media (but I repeat myself) have with it is that Republicans are using it effectively while their party is in power. And when the day comes when the Republicans blow it (and they will) and the Democrats return to power, you can bet your bottom dollar the Democrats will come up with their own version of the K Street Project and do their level best to purge the lobbying community of conservative Republicans. It’s just the way the game is played in your nation’s capital. It’s always been that way. And it always will.
Illegal? No. Cynical? Maybe. Realistic? Definitely. To the victor goes the spoils. As for the losers, let them eat cake.
AIPAC deals with "non-Israel" issues all the time. Its recent trepidation over a GOP proposal to pull Israel funding out of foreign funding has precisely to do with a philosophy that sees Israel is not an isolated issue, but one inextricably woven into U.S. foreign policy. Why was AIPAC on the ground floor of establishing the U.S. Global Leadership Commission?
Why, otherwise, do its lobbyists routinely lobby for what the White House wants in the foreign aid package — Israel-related or not — as announced on Budget Day, in February of each year? In part, its because some of the items — aid to Africa, for instance — are, indeed, dear to the heart of some of AIPAC’s more liberal donors. In part, it’s because the knowledge that the preeminent pro-Israel lobby is taking up your case makes foreign leaders a little more disposed to trading with Israel, and backing it in international fora. In part, it’s the price AIPAC pays for consistent backing, from administration to administration, of Israel’s massive defense assistance package.
Why in goodness’ name have the AJC, the ADL, JINSA and AIPAC for years been invested in increasing India’s profile in Washington? (Why does the Indian embassy have a Chanukah party every year?) Not to mention, Poland, Colombia (the list goes on) and, for pity’s sake, Turkey. Why was the Ottoman genocide of Armenians — or, more precisely denying it — an "Israel issue" if it wasn’t to secure Turkey’s alliance with Israel? Was there any other conceivable Jewish interest in denying a genocide?
Umm, AIPAC has taken a position on Russia, nuclear treaties, and Iran. Last time, however, Bill Kristol was somehow not moved to his quill. From AIPAC notes (pdf) on the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, in April 2008:
ICPA [the Iran Counter Proliferation Act, S. 970/H.R.1400 from the 110th Congress] also requires the implementation of any U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia to be conditioned on presidential certification that Russia has ceased nuclear cooperation with Iran. Such an agreement is worth tens of billions of dollars to Russia and may help convince Moscow to end its prior willingness develop Iran’s nuclear sector.
Now, one could argue — absent the exclamations of "extraordinary!" and "blatant!" — that overall, the business of dragging pro-Israel groups into non-Israel matters is a shaky one, and whatever its precedents, it’s time to bury the practice.
And there is substantive recent evidence for this argument:
The Iraq War.
Now, here’s what I know about what happened back in 2002-2003. Some groups (JINSA) did not need persuading. Some groups (AJC, the Presidents’ Conference), needed minimal persuasion. Some groups (ADL, AIPAC) went along to get along — as a matter of pragmatic accommodation of a Bush administration that made an art of "with us or against us." At least one group I know of, Reform’s Religious Action Center, joined the pro-war camp in a state of fraught agony.
All were subject to the suasions, if not bullying, of the Bush administration — particularly, but not solely, Vice President Dick Cheney.
Eight years later: Iran is ascendant in Iraq. The U.S. deterrent posture in the Middle East has been weakened. The pro-Israel lobby’s enemies have extracted statements of support by the above groups at the time to make a pernicious case that it was these groups that talked the administration into war, and not that the groups were cajoled into backing a war that had little to do with their interests.
This may change. A transformative Iraqi democracy may yet emerge and make the region safe for the West.
Until that happens though — and I propose this with all sincerity — the next letter from ECI or a like minded group to Schumer and Levin might take into account a) that friends of the letter writers were directly involved in the push to make Jewish groups pro-war and b) that the senators, having been around at the time, would be acutely aware of this.
A letter that omitted words like "disgrace" and instead included sentences like "we know, from our own experience and regrets, that coopting Jewish groups into backing foreign adventures ends badly" — now that might get attention.
And change policies, even.