Tablet contributor Matthew Duss and my fellow Tablet columnist Todd Gitlin think that the editors of this publication were off-base in calling out the Obama Administration for its tactics in selling the Iran deal. I believe Duss and Gitlin are wrong—and I think the reason they can’t see the bigotry at the heart of the White House’s campaign is worth investigating in some depth.
Let’s start with the suggestion that the “same people” responsible for the Iraq war are now opposing the Iran deal, which President Obama evoked in his speech at American University last week. The “same people” line has become one of the President’s constant refrains. Yet the reality is that the people behind the Iraq war—“the folks responsible for that decision,” as Obama calls them in The New Yorker this week—were the then-president of the United States, George W. Bush, and his national security cabinet, which included Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice. These figures may not like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but they’re hardly leading the opposition to it. So who exactly is Obama referring to?
Of course, anyone familiar with political discourse in America these days—on both the loony progressive left and the white power right—knows exactly what President Obama means: He is referencing the idea that a cabal of hardened “Likudniks,” journalists with Jewish-sounding names, and “monied interests” led America to war in Iraq in order to somehow advance the interests of the State of Israel. It should go without saying that this suggestion bears no relation whatsoever to any historical account of how the decision to go to war in Iraq was made, or how the American government works.
Yet in claiming that those responsible for Iraq are also opposing the Iran deal, the president has decided to refurbish the theory that Israel and the pro-Israel community, the “Israel lobby,” and certain Jews, dragged the United States to war in Iraq—and are now poised to do the same thing again in Iran. It doesn’t matter that the president surely knows this suggestion is idiotic, or that numerous analysts have shown that the then-government of Israel, led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, thought that Bush’s democracy agenda was a fool’s errand and he should instead leave Saddam’s crippled regime alone. It wasn’t lobbyists, and columnists, and journalists, as Obama bizarrely suggested in his White House meeting with Jewish leaders last week, who sent American men and women to Iraq to kill and die—it was George W. Bush, and his top officials.
But the fact that President Obama can’t possibly believe such nonsense hasn’t kept him from advancing this conspiracy theory repeatedly in the past few weeks—perhaps because he has advanced it before, and knows that it can give him traction in places where reasoned argument is likely to fail. In October 2002, then-Illinois State Senator Obama gave a speech explaining his opposition to the Iraq war. “What I am opposed to,” he said, “is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats.” Why did Obama single out these two figures? Wolfowitz was a deputy secretary of Defense—deputies don’t formulate policy, it’s made by principals, like Wolfowitz’s former boss, Rumsfeld. And Perle wasn’t even in the Bush administration: He was chairman of the Defense Policy Board, which is a Pentagon advisory committee, whose members serve without pay. In short, Senator Obama was repeating a conspiracy theory, popular among some on the left—one that is both nonsensical, and also plainly anti-semitic.
Duss and Gitlin hit a few of the highlights of the administration’s campaign—and then rationalize them one by one, as though the cumulative effect, amplified by various media outlets, is somehow immaterial. So, a New York Times editorial describes “the unseemly spectacle of lawmakers siding with a foreign leader against their own commander in chief”? Yawn. Duss and Gitlin think that’s a fair characterization, since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “with the cooperation of the Republican leadership… has staked out his leadership of the opposition to the Iran deal in the United States.” But when American lawmakers opposed the Iraq war, the Times never argued that they were more loyal to French President Jacques Chirac—a vociferous opponent of the war who appeared on 60 Minutes and other outlets to make his case directly to the American people—than they were to George W. Bush. Did the paper of record consider itself “disloyal” to its own commander in chief when it turned against the Iraq war, or when it opposed other foreign policy decisions that it felt were unwise? And yet when the prime minister of the Jewish state is involved, charges of dual loyalty are immediately raised—and are now being justified by Duss and Gitlin, who would surely be among the first to howl if anyone hurled such repugnant accusations at them for the crime of simple disagreement on a significant question of national policy.
Now let’s look at the word “lobbying.” No one doubts that significant parts of the pro-Israel community are lobbying against the JCPOA. Obama has also enlisted help in lobbying for the deal, tapping David Cameron during the British Prime Minister’s trip in January. More recently, the White House has called on the ambassadors of Germany, France and the United Kingdom to lobby Capitol Hill. Also invited to assist in the Administration’s Capitol Hill lobbying effort were diplomatic delegations from Russia and China, two countries that recently hacked into the files of America’s defense and intelligence communities. So, to follow the logic of Duss and Gitlin, two countries that have compromised U.S. national security at the highest levels are welcome to influence the representatives of the American public, but when the leader of a longstanding American ally stakes out a position on a policy that will affect his own country directly, that’s a huge problem. Obama himself says he can’t “recall a similar example,” as he told Fareed Zakaria last Sunday.
Duss and Gitlin are of course right that “money, lobbying, and donor pressure play a huge part in American politics.” The issue is that the only lobby that the White House and its allies are talking about is the pro-Israel lobby, as if Obama did not have a huge and well-financed collection of interest groups behind him, which includes not only mainstream media outlets, like The New York Times, but also a pro-Iranian regime lobby, spearheaded by the National Iranian-American Council, which, like the pro-Israel lobby, pushes its agenda on Capitol Hill, does briefings there, too, and arranges meetings between members of Congress and Iranian regime figures, like Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. In fact, one of NIAC’s former employees is now the director of the Iran Desk at the White House. Before he was named to serve as Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Colin Kahl was a frequent guest at NIAC panels. When Obama talked to Jon Stewart about money and lobbyists opposing the deal, why didn’t he say anything about Iranian lobbying in favor of the deal? In fact, one purpose of the JCPOA is to create an enormous international lobby that will dwarf AIPAC’s $20 million budget to fight the deal by three or four decimal points. What foreign leader, for example, would dream of re-imposing financial penalties on Iran if it means jeopardizing, say, billions of dollars or thousands of jobs?
Duss and Gitlin write that the “banal observation that wealthy lobbies have influence is somehow transformed into evidence of prejudice”—blithely disregarding centuries of anti-Semitic propaganda focused precisely on the ways that Jewish money and influence operate in society. What makes such talk “evidence of prejudice,” of course, is not the idea that some Jews are rich, or that groups of Jews might band together to advance their own ideas of the good, just like all other groups in American society do, but that Jewish money and Jewish influence are uniquely illegitimate and harmful to the rest of society. So why are Duss and Gitlin defending the president’s decision to single out one lobby—and only one lobby—as somehow un-American? That’s anti-semitism.
Don’t quite see it yet? Then check out the #DumpSchumer hashtag on Twitter: Whoever wants to defend Obama’s language about money and lobbies and affinities had better be prepared to own the open cesspool of anti-Semitism there, because that’s where this language is intended to resonate.
Maybe it’s just that those who fail to detect even the slightest stench of bigotry in conspiracy theories about Jewish cabals constantly seeking to lead America to war, or constant public assertions about the illegitimate role of “money” and “lobbyists” and “foreign governments” in the Iran debate, come from a more sheltered place than I do. Growing up in New York in the 1970s with a Puerto Rican mother, I acquired a pretty direct and immediate sense of what racist language sounds like and feels like, whether it was uttered aloud by shopkeepers or whispered by my schoolmates and their parents. Indeed you have to live in a well-protected fantasyland enclave—or else be a shill for an Administration that has lost its moral compass—not to be able to see the ugliness of the campaign the White House has engineered.
These aren’t occasional slips of the tongue, or ill-chosen phrases that might offend delicate, neurotic sensibilities, but a purposeful campaign that’s been going on for months, as I’ve reported for Tablet here, here, here, here, and here.
The main point of my “Agents of Influence” column since its inception in the winter of 2010 has been to explain that there are many actors, foreign and domestic, who seek to influence Washington policymakers, and to show readers who they are and how they work, part of the premise being that lobbying is an important and often honorable part of the American political system. What’s not honorable is the concerted effort to target any American group—whether it’s defined by race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual preference—the way that the White House and its allies in the media are now targeting Jews.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).