Enough “Likud”-Bashing, Already!

It’s time to focus on policy, not its proponents.

A couple of weeks ago, CBS first reported that the FBI was investigating whether midlevel Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin had passed classified information to an employee of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, who in turn gave it to an Israeli official. According to CBS, law enforcement figures were unsure whether the investigation, under way for a year, would eventually lead to “charges of unlawful disclose [sic] of classified material or espionage.” So far, no arrests or indictments have been made, but some observers believe that the affair is far from over.

As many journalists have noted, it is almost certain that, despite official denials, Israel spies on the United States—just as U.S. clandestine services in turn spy on Israel and other allies. However, it is improbable that AIPAC would knowingly entangle itself in espionage. AIPAC is one of the most powerful, and most scrutinized, lobbies in Washington, and it is unlikely to risk its reputation and access to U.S. decision-makers for a document that has been described as a “glorified Op-Ed.”

What Franklin allegedly passed to AIPAC sometime last year was an unfinished draft of a National Presidential Security Directive on Iran. The information was sensitive enough that a June 15, 2003, Washington Post story on the NPSD said, “Senior administration officials refused to talk about the status of the Bush policy directive on Iran, on the grounds that it is classified.” Apparently, however, the information was not so sensitive that officials refrained from sketching for the Post some of the directive’s main topics and noting that competing parties in the administration disagree over the direction of Iran policy.

In short, the U.S. government views with serious concern both Iran’s nuclear program and its support of terrorist groups, including al-Qaida. Much of the State Department favors dialogue with the regime’s reformers (even though it has been clear for some time now that President Khatami’s reform wing has little, if any, power) while the Pentagon leans instead toward talking directly to student leaders and other democratic activists outside the government. No one is currently pressing for military action against Iran, if only because our commitments in Iraq make it impossible.

Nonetheless, Iran is still a very big problem for the United States, and perhaps a much larger one for Israel, but in the long run, the Franklin affair doesn’t have much to do with Iran. Rather, it’s a plot point in an ongoing story about U.S. foreign policy since Sept. 11, a story in which Franklin’s role is pretty negligible. He’s of interest largely because he works in an office at the Pentagon that is associated with the group of Bush administration ideologues known as the neoconservatives, who have so far mostly distinguished themselves as leading proponents of the war in Iraq. Israel is a significant part of the story insofar as a number of commentators are claiming that some of the Jewish neocons (Franklin is not Jewish) are disloyal to the United States.

Fueling the conspiracy theories is the fact that a few Bush administration officials, including the No. 3 man in the Pentagon, Douglas Feith, wrote a paper in 1996 for then newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called “A Clean Break,” which described, among other ideas, the desirability of regime change in Iraq. Nowhere, however, does it say that Israel should get American soldiers to do it. Indeed, “A Clean Break” also argued for ending Israel’s dependence on U.S. aid.

Regardless, while the research into the neocons’ ideas about the region and their connections to Israel might have begun as a partisan exercise in aggressive political journalism and speculative intellectual history, it has now come to resemble an old narrative in Western culture that engenders rumors of a “cabal,” a secret government within the government, run by people whose loyalty to the state that harbors them is dubious. The word “Jew” isn’t used, but “Likud” is tossed around with an alarming facility.

For example, in a recent interview with a Turkish news source, former Pentagon desk officer Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski elaborated on some of the opinions she’s been articulating in both her own writing and in other interviews, including one with a Lyndon LaRouche publication. “I think for [sic] many of these guys truly believe that what is good for Likud is good for America,” she said. “This is wrong factually, and wrong philosophically, and is probably very close to being treason.” On his Weblog, University of Michigan professor Juan Cole wrote, “I believe that Doug Feith, for instance, has dual loyalties to the Israeli Likud Party and to the U.S. Republican Party. … And I also think that if he has to choose, he will put the interests of the Likud above the interests of the Republican Party. … I frankly don’t trust him to put America first.”

Do Kwiatkowski and Cole have any factual evidence to draw on besides their own convictions and prejudices? Of course not. Their charges might not seem particularly sensationalist if they appeared exclusively on blogs, but mainstream press outfits like UPI, Knight Ridder, and Newsweek, among others, have used Kwiatkowski as a source for stories about the neocons; others, like PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, NPR, and the Washington Post have called on Cole to discuss his views on Iraq. (His opinions have also been cited in several Slate stories.) It’s unclear whether these media outlets recognize what kind of larger worldview their experts’ opinions issue from, but media consumers deserve to know that some of the talking heads they’re hearing are advancing conspiracy theories and accusing U.S. government officials of dual loyalty verging on treason.

The fundamental issue is that had it not been for Sept. 11, the neocons’ ideas that wound up winning the day—among them, regime change in Iraq, and perhaps elsewhere, and the push for democracy in the Middle East—would have remained fodder for policy papers. Up until 9/11, the premise of U.S. Middle East policy was to maintain stability in the region in order to secure our national interests. The attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center showed that those interests, including the welfare of U.S. citizens, were not secure; perhaps the region was by its very nature unstable. If so, the assumptions underlying our policies were flawed.

It might seem obvious to casual observers that our Middle East policy needed serious re-evaluation after Sept. 11, but we should remember the number of policy-makers, politicians, military and intelligence officers, and academic experts who have continued to argue for the status quo. Are these people stupid? Don’t they know there is a large hole in lower Manhattan where the cities’ two tallest buildings used to be? Are they conspiring in treason? Do they want to preserve policies that did not protect Americans where they work and live? No, they are neither stupid nor treasonous. Like the neocons themselves, the policy elite that they challenged, both Democrats and Republicans, have careers and reputations invested in their ideas—like the peace process, constructive engagement with Syria, and overlooking the various transgressions of our Saudi friends. Moreover, these principles have become a habit of mind, not just for Middle East experts, but also for the press corps with whom they have naturally built up a close relationship over the years.

If you’re a reporter who’s been told for 30 years that the key to Middle East peace is a just and comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli crisis, and one of your government sources tells you that this is not a high priority for the Bush White House, then it seems that something has gone terribly wrong. How did a previously accepted notion change? The chances are the source is not going to explain that the real problem is that his side is losing a round of brutal bureaucratic infighting because he might not even recognize it as such. Besides, very few people ever believe that they are wrong, and in Washington it is dangerous to admit you are wrong. So, the explanation must be that something else is going on—in this case, that there has been a palace coup waged by power-drunk policy intellectuals.

One of the peculiar aspects of the secret cabal narrative is that it tends to flatter the people who tell it—after all, this is a case of one group of journalists and academics describing how other journalists and academics wield the awesome power that drives Washington politics. Policy experts no doubt supply an administration with much of its intellectual élan, but in the end they do not decide to send men to war. Outside of office, millionaire CEOs like Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld do not regularly solicit advice from college professors on how best to use money and personnel; why would the secretary of defense take orders from his subordinates during wartime?

It was Sept. 11 that won the argument about U.S. Middle East policy—not the neocons. The belief that they steamrolled the president into war has dovetailed all too conveniently with a very vicious notion about the untrustworthiness of Jews. It’s shameful for many reasons, not least because the debate over Middle East policy is still of vital importance, and the neocons were “right” only insofar as they revisited a number of ideas that were due to be revised. But Sept. 11 is not the final word in Middle East policy; it merely forced us to re-examine some accepted notions, and we should assume we will need to do so again. However, right now much of the policy community and the media are in no position to shape a real debate about policy. We deserve that argument, without conspiracy theories and “Likud”-baiting.