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If you ask American Jews how they feel about Iraq, Iran, and President George Bush's foreign policies, the results closely track those among Americans as a whole. A survey released last week by the American Jewish Committee found that American Jews wish the US had never gone into Iraq, are concerned about Iran, and disapprove of how Bush is handling the campaign against terrorism.
Already in November, before the release of the National Intelligence Estimate claiming that Iran had "halted" its military nuclear program, American Jews opposed the idea of a US military action to prevent Iran from going nuclear by a margin of 57 to 35 percent. National polls yield similar or slightly more hawkish results if the question posits that sanctions and diplomacy have failed.
At the same time, 59 percent of American Jews are "very concerned," and another 33 percent are "somewhat concerned," about the prospect of Iran going nuclear. Such trepidations are widely shared. In October, some 82 percent of Americans polled believed that Iran was supplying weapons against US troops in Iraq. Last year, 50 percent of Americans believed that if Iran had a bomb it would pass it on to terrorists to use against the US or Israel. And a brand new survey found that even after the NIE, 69 percent of Americans still believe that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.
A November USA Today/Gallup poll perhaps captured this somewhat contradictory picture best when it found that three-quarters of Americans were concerned that the US would use military force too precipitously, while almost the same clear majority was concerned that the US "will not do enough to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons."
AMERICANS FEEL burned by Iraq, don't trust Bush, and yet want something to be done about Iran. How will this play out over 2008, a highly-charged political year?
Campaign professionals are saying that the outcome in the coming elections will depend on whether they are fought over who better represents change, or who will better lead the country in a time of war. An election about change favors the Democrats, while an election about national security might favor the Republicans.
Ironically, both the intelligence report on Iran and the recent US military upturn in Iraq would tend to favor the Democrats; both developments tend to lessen the sense of international threat.
Like Churchill after World War II and Bush's father at the end of the Cold War, Bush's party might suffer politically more from success than from failure, or even from both at the same time.
In this context, what should the many Americans who are torn between their hawkish and dovish instincts do? How can they square the circle between wanting security and opposing military action, between distrusting their government and fearing that the world is becoming a significantly more dangerous place?
While the NIE seems to cut the legs out from under any US effort to confront Iran, it actually could provide a basis for a new consensus on this contentious issue.
Before the NIE, the other Democratic presidential candidates pilloried Hillary Clinton for voting for a sanctions measure against Iran, claiming that she was playing into Bush's hands and paving the road to war. "You give this president an inch, he will take a mile," John Edwards said, attacking Hillary's vote.
After the NIE, there is no mile to take. The military option has been yanked off the table. Yet it is hard to believe that many Americans are convinced regarding the effectiveness of the Democrats' main alternative - talking to Iran.
In truth, a closer look at what the Democrats are saying indicates that they do favor tougher sanctions on Iran. Barack Obama, for example, told an AIPAC audience in March, "In the 21st century, it is unacceptable that a member state of the United Nations would openly call for the elimination of another member state. ... The world must work to stop Iran's uranium enrichment program and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It is far too dangerous to have nuclear weapons in the hands of a radical theocracy."
He continued, "And while we should take no option, including military action, off the table, sustained and aggressive diplomacy combined with tough sanctions should be our primary means to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons."
Obama later introduced his own sanctions bill, rendering his decision to oppose Hillary's sanctions vote somewhat strange. But that was then. The question is, now that force has been effectively taken off the table, whether the Democrats will stop talking about sanctions as well.
LEFT TO their own devices, the Democrats would likely be happy if foreign policy dropped away as an election factor. They can benefit from voter discomfort with Bush on this issue, without having to prove that they will be better guardians of American security.
It is here, however, that the American Jewish community can make a difference, while still being completely representative of broader American opinion. Reflecting the view that Iran must be stopped and a Bush-led military action prevented, the Jewish community should be pushing both Democrats and Republicans not to let the sanctions ball drop.
Post-NIE, neither Europeans nor Democrats can claim that sanctions are just preparation for military action. Now they are all the West's got. Yet there is little doubt, even according to the NIE, that sanctions can be effective against Iran.
If Europe stopped providing export credits to sharply curtail its trade with Iran, cut back on diplomatic relations, imposed travel sanctions and, with the US and Israel, moved to indict Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for incitement to genocide under the Genocide Convention, Iran's momentum toward a bomb could still be stopped.
If the words "never again" mean anything, they mean that a fascist genocidal tyranny must not be allowed to rise again. And if American Jews do not understand and will not press both the White House and Democratic candidates on this, who will?
A discredited, lame-duck president cannot revive the sanctions campaign on his own, but a true American bipartisan consensus aimed at pressing Europe could.
Polls show that American Jews and the general public want neither a nuclear Iran nor military action. The nascent consensus in favor of a robust sanctions campaign is waiting to be translated into concrete action.