On a recent installment of MSNBC's "Hardball," Chris Matthews hosted a debate between Pat Buchanan and Republican political analyst David Frum. Buchanan opposed a United States-led invasion of Iraq, while Frum supported President George W. Bush's plan for tough inspections first followed by -- if those inspections fail -- the forceful removal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power.
That we've all heard before. But what I hadn't heard before -- what I wasn't even sure I was hearing as I reclined comfortably on my couch -- was the repeated reference to the fact that the pro-war advisers are Jews. Matthews said it. Frum said it. Buchanan, whose love of the Jewish people and Israel would win him no Lion of Judah awards, seemed to strain mightily against saying it, and refused to snap at the bait Matthews dangled before him.
I haven't tried contacting Matthews to ask him why he felt it important to mention that the pro-invasion advisers were Jewish. He might tell me, "Because they are." And this is true. A large number are, including leading attack-Iraq proponents Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Defense Department Undersecretary of Policy Douglas Feith and Defense Policy Board Chair Richard Perle. Among the most ardent pro-invasion pundits are William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, The New York Times' William Safire and Commentary's Norman Podhoretz.
Of course, the looney left and wiggy right have plastered the Web with attacks on the Jewish cabal in the White House. Type "Iraq," "policy" and "Jews" into Google, hit enter, and the whole American circus of Jew-haters comes marching across your computer screen. That's to be expected.
What has caught me by surprise is the extent to which more mainstream opponents of the war have adopted some of the same rhetoric. In an opinion piece, Matthews wrote of a "coterie of neo-conservative thinkers" who shifted the legitimate war against Al Qaeda into a long-sought war with Baghdad. "Out of the ashes of Sept. 11, they and their rightist associates found what they've long yearned for: an American government heading toward war in the Middle East," Matthews wrote.
An article by Jason Vest in the Sept. 2 issue of The Nation claimed that the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) and the Center for Security Policy (CSP) constitute a "shadow defense establishment" pushing America toward all-out war on behalf of Israel. Perle and Feith sit on the JINSA board, and American policy has now become synonymous with Israel's interest, Vest wrote. The article, "The Men From JINSA and CSP," has become a prooftext to those who claim a Jewish cabal or, as Matthews would have it, "coterie" at work.
Whether you agree with the planned invasion of Iraq or not, to call it a war fomented by American Jewry to serve Israel's interests is ludicrous. For one, American Jewish legislators are divided on the issue. While Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) is a strong supporter, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who chairs the important Senate Armed Services Committee, has consistently urged caution. Jewish groups are divided as well. All strongly oppose Saddam, but no major group has reached a consensus on the use of force to bring about his downfall or on unilateral action against him. And it's fair to point out -- as long as Matthews and others are checking IDs here -- that the focus on Iraq is the policy of a Christian president, his mostly Christian advisers, his Christian Cabinet and a largely Christian Congress acting at the behest of a majority of their Christian constituents.
There is a case to be made -- no sense in hiding it -- that a United States-led attack on Iraq would make the Middle East a much better place for Israel. An Israeli official confirmed to me one possible scenario that has been well-documented in the press lately: the United States leads an invasion of Iraq, focusing part of its initial attack on taking out armaments that threaten Israel. Israel refrains from responding to any attack from Iraq, as per the president's request. But Hezbollah uses the invasion to launch an attack across Israel's northern border, and Israel responds to that attack with a massive show of force against Hezbollah and its sponsor Syria. When the dust clears, Iran finds itself surrounded by changed regimes in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, making it inevitable that the hard-liners will fall from power there too. And what about the Palestinians? America will impose a solution on Israel and the Palestinians -- finish the business once and for all -- and Israel will be hard-pressed to say no considering America's war effort.
(This explains why the administration is obsessed with Iraq's nonexistent nuclear weapons while giving North Korea's weapons of mass destruction a pass -- invade North Korea and you deter one despot, invade Iraq and you change history.)
That, anyway, is the optimistic scenario, and if the war against Iraq goes well, the conspiracy theorists will remain on the fringe. But should America get sucked into a debilitating conflict, if Israel appears to have gained strategic ground at the expense of large numbers of American lives, the fringe will move onto center stage, and the calls to label Bush's policy a Jewish war will rouse us, sharply and painfully, from our couches.