Gen. David Petraeus testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command and former commander of the multinational force in Iraq, next month will receive an award from the American Enterprise Institute named for Irving Kristol, the so-called godfather of the neo-conservatives. Petreaus made his name with the 2008 surge of U.S. forces in Iraq, for which the AEI takes some credit; the organization’s website describes resident scholar Frederick W. Kagan as “one of the intellectual architects of the successful ‘surge’ strategy in Iraq.” As the general who appeared to validate the Bush Administration’s ambitious nation-building scheme in Iraq, Petraeus earned the adulation of Jewish conservatives. “It took Lincoln three years to find Sherman and Grant. It took George Bush three years to find Petraeus,” Norman Podhoretz wrote in his bestselling book World War IV.

And so, it was perhaps not the best time for reports to emerge that Petraeus had blamed Israeli intransigence toward the Palestinians for endangering the lives of American servicemen in the Middle East—at a reported Pentagon briefing early in March and again in congressional testimony on March 16. Jewish conservatives—including Max Boot—quickly scampered to defend Obama’s top Middle East commander.

This is a grand miscalculation, I believe, on the part of the American Jewish community’s conservative wing: While the Obama Administration works to prevent Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear capacity, Jewish conservatives are battling over whether they were right in 2005, when they urged the United States to take responsibility for Iraq’s political future.

Foreign Policy blogger Mark Perry, a former adviser to Yasser Arafat, reported on March 13 that Petraeus prepared a briefing for Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen warning “that there was a growing perception among Arab leaders that the U.S. was incapable of standing up to Israel, that CENTCOM’s mostly Arab constituency was losing faith in American promises, [and] that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region.” Before a Senate committee on March 16, Petraeus said, “Clearly the tensions on these issues [with Israel] have enormous effect on the strategic context in which we operate in the Central Command’s area of responsibility.”

Perry’s report provoked a cagey half-denial by Petraeus to The American Spectator on March 25. “There’s a 56-page document that we submitted that has a statement in it that describes various factors that influence the strategic context in which we operate and among those we listed the Mideast peace process,” the general said. “We noted in there that there was a perception at times that America sides with Israel and so forth. And I mean, that is a perception. It is there. I don’t think that’s disputable. But I think people inferred from what that said and then repeated it a couple of times and bloggers picked it up and spun it. And I think that has been unhelpful, frankly.”

Yet as the Washington Times’s Diana West observed on March 25, the paragraph supposedly taken out of context by “bloggers” says substantially what Perry and others said it did:

Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile Al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizbollah and Hamas.

Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League blasted Petraeus’s Senate testimony as “dangerous and counterproductive.” He added, “Whenever the Israeli-Arab conflict is made a focal point, Israel comes to be seen as the problem. If only Israel would stop settlements, if only Israel would talk with Hamas, if only Israel would make concessions on refugees, if only it would share Jerusalem, everything in the region would then fall into line.”

It is one of the stranger man-bites-dog stories in the recent history of Jewish politics in the United States: Abe Foxman, a strident liberal and erstwhile Obama supporter, denounces a Pentagon official for putting Israel on the spot, while Obama’s neoconservative detractors insist that the incident never happened. Some of Petraeus’s admirers in the conservative Jewish camp excuse his remarks on the grounds that he has no choice but to repeat the Administration’s position. That would seem to provide all the more grounds to attack him.

Of course what Petraeus actually said or didn’t say is much less damaging to both U.S. and Israeli interests than the undisputed fact that the 100,000 American troops in Iraq have been tasked with the mission of supporting a government that may soon be headed by an overt ally of Iran, Ahmad Chalabi. “We are proposing the creation of a regional alliance among Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran,” the onetime neoconservative favorite wrote in The Wall Street Journal on March 5. As Joshua Muravchik, an erstwhile Chalabi supporter, wrote in a mea culpa on the World Affairs blog, “An alliance of this kind is designed to push the United States from the region and pave the way for Iranian and/or Islamist hegemony.”

Iran has gained political ascendancy in Iraq through intensive subversion efforts. According to senior military sources cited by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius on February 25, “The Iranians allegedly are pumping $9 million a month in covert aid to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite party that has the most seats in the Iraqi parliament, and $8 million a month to the militant Shiite movement headed by Moqtada al-Sadr.”

Petraeus’s opinions about the Middle East carry less weight than those of his boss, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, who has been warning against an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear capability for the past year. In a March 16, 2009, interview with Charlie Rose, Mullen said: “What I worry about in terms of an attack on Iran is, in addition to the immediate effect, the effect of the attack, it’s the unintended consequences. It’s the further destabilization in the region. It’s how they would respond. We have lots of Americans who live in that region who are under the threat envelope right now [because of the] capability that Iran has across the Gulf. So, I worry about their responses and I worry about it escalating in ways that we couldn’t predict.”

A rough translation of Mullen’s remarks into civilian political language is that the quixotic notion of building democracy in the Middle East led the United States into an Iranian trap.

“I met [Chalabi] around the time of the first Gulf war,” Joshua Muravchik recounts, “and I gave him a copy of my recently published book, Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling America’s Destiny. When I saw him next, maybe five years later, he said: ‘I read your book, but I don’t think your government has.’ I was of course flattered and amused. And I was enchanted by this articulate man from that other-planet of Baathist Iraq who professed the very same democratic beliefs central to my worldview.”

The neoconservatives never appear to have noticed that the Iranian leadership was just as keen on building democracy in Iraq as they were. When the American occupation forces held the constitutional referendum in late 2005 that is the putative foundation of Iraqi democracy, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei hailed it as “a great and blessed job” in an October 21, 2005, sermon. “The next important step in Iraq after the referendum is the general elections on which the occupiers are planning right now,” he said. Khamenei called for a truce in the sectarian war between Shi’ites and Sunnis, intoning, “These elements [extremists] are neither Sunni nor Shi’ite but are the enemies of both and Islam.”

Iran retained the capacity to inflict high levels of casualties on the United States throughout the Iraqi democratization campaign but chose not to use it. Instead, it withdrew some of its most exposed and volatile assets, including Muqtada al-Sadr, to Iran. The Iranians counted on the fact that the Americans would soon be gone—and that their proximity, staying power, and affinity with Iraq’s Shi’ite majority would allow the Islamic Republic to emerge as the dominant player in the country.

Were the United States, or anyone else, to bomb Iran’s nuclear bomb-making capacity, Iran has the capacity to retaliate in any number of ways—suicide bombs against U.S. servicemen, Silkworm missiles aimed at tankers in the Persian Gulf, rocket fire against Israeli cities. The consequences against which Mullen warned certainly would include Jewish lives; they might include American lives as well. Bombing Iran also might expose the weakness of an unpopular regime and make its overthrow more probable. Instability might enhance rather than detract from American influence in the region provided the United States had a government that knew how to navigate it.

Unlike the neoconservatives, who persuaded themselves that the warring tribes of a country invented by British cartographers would embrace U.S.-style democracy and become strong enough to repel the political advances of their powerful neighbor, the so-called realists prepared to accommodate Iranian hegemony over what U.S. strategists had once hopefully called the Arabian Gulf. In 2004, Robert Gates, now the secretary of Defense, and former Carter national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski chaired a Council on Foreign Relations panel on the future of Iran. They concluded:

From the perspective of U.S. interests, one particular issue area appears particularly ripe for U.S.-Iranian engagement: the future of Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States has a direct and compelling interest in ensuring both countries’ security and the success of their post-conflict governments. Iran has demonstrated its ability and readiness to use its influence constructively in these two countries, but also its capacity for making trouble. The United States should work with Tehran to capitalize on Iran’s influence to advance the stability and consolidation of its neighbors.

Gates and Brzezinski also showed understanding for Iran’s drive to acquire nuclear weapons: “Given its history and its turbulent neighborhood, Iran’s nuclear ambitions do not reflect a wholly irrational set of strategic calculations.”

This is the context in which to understand recent remarks by Mullen and Petraeus—professional soldiers handed a miserable mission by civilian authorities inspired by delusional democracy-promoting public intellectuals. They understand as well as Gates and Brzezinski did in 2004 that, given the U.S. posture in Iraq and Afghanistan, a nuclear Iran is the American exit strategy. An attack on Iran’s nuclear installations would tear down the whole Potemkin village of supposed democratization and lead to “unforeseen consequences.” The civilian leadership does not want these consequences; the public intellectuals have not begun to consider them; and in any case these consequences would lead to American casualties and ruin prominent reputations. It might be better for the world to take out Iran’s nuclear capability now—most Americans and most Israelis have told pollsters they think so—but it would not necessarily be better for Mullen.

One alternative to such nasty consequences is to encourage Iran to exercise its ambitions for regional hegemony “responsibly” and to tread lightly around its nuclear weapons program—trading the short-term appearance of stability for the prospect of a catastrophe in the medium term. This outcome was foreseeable from the beginning; the foreign policy establishment as represented by Brzezinski and Gates embraced it in 2004. “I do not believe any formal understanding is in place, but the probable outcome is that Washington will refrain from military action to forestall Iranian nuclear arms developments, while Tehran will refrain from disrupting Washington’s constitutional Potemkin Village in Iraq,” I wrote in Asia Times Online in 2005.

Meanwhile, Commentary bloggers cling to Petraeus for dear life. When the Washington Times’s Diana West dug out the noteworthy fact that Petraeus’s faculty adviser for a Princeton thesis in 1987 was Stephen Walt, of Israel Lobby fame, Max Boot shot back from his perch at Commentary, “I await West’s correction and apology for the numerous calumnies she has lodged against the most distinguished American military commander since Eisenhower.”

The Petraeus Affair has helped neutralize Jewish conservatives as a political force for the electoral season. The missteps of the Jewish right are a source of comfort to the White House. A prominent New York rabbi mused the other day that former Secretary of State James Baker said, “Screw the Jews, they don’t vote for us” while Obama says, “Screw the Jews, they’ll vote for us anyway.”

Some liberal Jewish leaders, though, are not as docile as the White House thinks they are. The ADL’s Foxman told Haaretz on March 20 that Obama’s mistreatment of Israel “might become a political football,” that is, a reason to ditch already beleaguered Democratic candidates in the November elections. “The majority of the American Jewish community is not happy with settlements,” Foxman explained. “But it also isn’t happy when the U.S. president tells the Israeli prime minister what to do. I think that in the beginning the president received advice that if you take the settlements issue public you don’t have anything to lose, because the American Jews don’t like settlements, and the Israelis as well, and this is a win-win. But the American Jews don’t like the American administration dictating to Israel what it should or shouldn’t do.”

It is clear to the mainstream Jewish leadership that they have profound differences with the Obama Administration and that they may have to choose between support for Israel’s security and their traditional liberal agenda in domestic politics. But the fight over Obama’s Israel policy will be fought out within the Jewish liberal mainstream because the politically conservative wing of the Jewish community has painted itself into a corner. There it sits, nursing its wounded reputation. The menu for the American Enterprise Institute’s dinner for Petraeus hasn’t been announced. I recommend crow.

David P. Goldman is a senior editor at First Things and writes the “Spengler” column for the Asia Times.