AIPAC vs. the Neocons on Iran

AIPAC vs. the Neocons on Iran

Neocons will lose the Iran fight because their bankrupt ideology is too partisan, but they’re winning the war of ideas in the GOP.


There’s a fascinating divide emerging over the Corker-Cardin compromise bill that would give Congress a vote on an Iran deal and which unanimously emerged from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. The compromise, engineered by committee chair Bob Corker (R-TN) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-MD), softened some provisions in Corker’s original bill. With Democrats supporting the bill, the White House perhaps saw the writing on the wall and dropped its opposition—and veto threat—against the new version.

Now, though, Republican hawks in Congress are looking to weigh the bill down with amendments that would certainly invoke a veto. The charge is being led by Sen. Tom Cotton, the combative Arkansas Republican who has emerged as the upper chamber’s most vociferous Iran hawk. Cotton has vowed to introduce several amendments that would make congressional approval of any Iran nuclear deal virtually impossible. Several other Republican senators have promised to do the same.

What’s so fascinating is that AIPAC supports the Corker-Cardin compromise. The flagship Israel lobby group likely sees the bill, which creates a procedure for Congress to vote approval or disapproval of a final Iran nuclear accord, as a good first step to kill the deal it has opposed from the start. The logic would be that enacting Corker-Cardin would lay the groundwork, then the lobby would set about trying to convince enough Democrats to support its anti-diplomacy position to get Congress to vote down the final agreement when that time comes.

A piece today in Bloomberg View headlined the fight between the Israel lobby and the Republican über-hawks as “Aipac vs. Pro-Israel Republicans.” But it would more accurately be called “AIPAC vs. the Neocons.” And we shouldn’t forget for a moment that the bankrupt ideology of neoconservatism is behind these efforts; the line between leading neocons and this obstructionism is too easy to trace—and too laughably reminiscent of their misadventure in Iraq.

Cotton, after all, is a protégé of neoconservative don Bill Kristol. And Kristol has come out firing at the Corker-Cardin compromise. In a Weekly Standard editorial later distributed by his attack-dog letterhead group the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), Kristol labeled the compromise bill “at worst misleading, at best toothless,” denouncing Corker and “the leading establishment pro-Israel lobbying group”—AIPAC—for their support of it.

Kristol couched his call for “implant(ing) teeth in the legislation’s clammy gums” as a way to avoid conflict: “Perhaps future wars in the Middle East can be made less likely,” he mused. Who does he think he’s kidding? Kristol has already called for war with Iran! Cotton, for his part, has been totally frank about opposing any deal with Iran whatsoever, not simply seeking a “better deal.” And Cotton’s alternative? He has said war with Iran will be easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy—or, if you prefer to harken back to the drumming for war with Iraq, a cakewalk. (Kristol’s ECI—which, speaking of Iraq, was birthed in the same office as the neoconservative Committee to Liberate Iraqthrew a million dollars behind Cotton’s Senate campaign.)

As Jim Lobe noted, all this comes as Republican presidential hopefuls—some of whom in the Senate are set to introduce their own compromise-killing measures—are getting ready to prostrate themselves before Sheldon “Nuke Iran” Adelson, the Republican mega-donor and hard-line Likudnik that funds a virtual who’s who of Washington’s network of neocon think tanks and anti-Iran diplomacy groups. Adelson demands of his beneficiaries total fealty to his extraordinarily hawkish pro-Israel views (he even publicly upbraided AIPAC, which he has funded to the tune of millions, over the group’s support for George W. Bush’s short-lived Annapolis process for Israeli-Palestinian peace).

That tidbit of a fact helps to place some of this maneuvering (some might say posturing) in an important historical context. For the neocons, what’s wrong with the Corker-Cardin compromise is not the compromise itself, but rather who it was with: namely, Democrats. There’s a long history that we needn’t get into here (check out Dan Luban’s excellent review of neoconservatism’s history for some of it and Norman Podhoretz’s disappointment in Jewish Democrats for another angle), but suffice to say that neoconservatives have realized for some years now that Democrats, especially staunchly liberal Democrats, are too squishy on foreign policy to be good allies. A lot of it boils down to Democrats just not being excited enough for foreign wars.

And so the neoconservatives and their closest allies in the far-right pro-Israel world hammer away at anything that Democrats have touched; the rejectionism and obstructionism of the Tea Party makes for a fine comparison to the way neocons treat moderate Republicans on foreign policy, not to mention the Democrats they would work with. And AIPAC has not been immune: my old boss Peter Beinart has documented this well in instances like the 2012 Democratic convention Jerusalem platform fight and the Chuck Hagel nomination row. The neocons want to pull AIPAC—with all its clout and money—into the Republican fold because they think bipartisan Middle East hawkishness is, not to put too fine a point on it, bullshit.

AIPAC seems pretty freaked out about it, and who can blame them: they’re losing. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu started really alienating Democrats with his constant, cocksure interventions into the American debate over Iran—not to mention effectively endorsing the Republican in the 2012 US election—and kept driving coffin nails with his racist election tactics. The GOP, however, is eating it all up. What’s more, the big pro-Israel money, particularly but not limited to Sheldon Adelson, is firmly committed to yanking the GOP right on Israel—and that’s working, too!

In the case of the Iran bill, this is likely to hamper neoconservatives and AIPAC alike in their efforts to squash an Iran nuclear deal. If any of the negotiation-killing amendments are added to the Corker-Cardin bill, hawkish Democrats are going to squirm but eventually sustain President Obama’s veto. The naked partisanship of the neocons’ machinations are so obvious that it’ll be an easy decision, even for hawkish Democrats like Chuck Schumer. This would be just the latest instance where GOP partisanship has staved off a congressional affront to Obama’s diplomacy.

But it’s still worth noting that causes considered “pro-Israel”—and make no mistake that killing an Iran deal is, in Washington, a pro-Israel cause—are increasingly being conflated with doctrinaire neoconservatism and taken up solely by Republicans. This is the battle neocons are winning—but being the ideologues that they are, Kristol and his comrades will be satisfied with nothing short of total victory in the war. Which, in the case of Iran, would be launching an actual one.

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