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Is there a more unpopular man in America than Vice President Dick Cheney? After more than six years as the Bush administration's chief policy guru/hatchet man, Cheney is not only the villain in every conspiracy theory about anything that has happened during their time in office, he is also the punchline for every joke about its incompetence.
From his accidental shooting of a fellow killer of innocent quail to his long association with the ever-popular oil industry, Cheney is pretty much the incarnation of everything just about everybody seems to hate about the presidency of George W. Bush.
So who better to send to the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee two weeks ago to defend the equally unpopular war in Iraq than Cheney?
Going straight to the dilemma facing Jewish groups trying to raise the alarm about the threat from Iran while staying neutral on the war in Iraq, the vice president attempted to disabuse them of the notion that they could continue with this position.
"It is simply not consistent," said Cheney, "for anyone to demand aggressive action against the menace posed by the Iranian regime while at the same time acquiescing in a retreat from Iraq that would leave our worst enemies dramatically emboldened and Israel's best friend, the United States, dangerously weakened."
This position was, more or less, echoed by two other speakers heard at the AIPAC conclave, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (who appeared via a video link from Israel) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (Ind.-Conn.).
Olmert, is in the unique position of being even more unpopular in Israel than Cheney is in the United States with the latest polls showing that an amazingly low 3 percent of the Israeli public would like to see him remain in office. But he was still prepared to use his shrinking influence to urge American Jews to back the war.
Lieberman, who survived a challenge to his US Senate seat last year via an independent ticket after he was rejected by Democratic primary voters, is no longer the universally loved figure that he was when he made history as Al Gore's vice presidential running mate in 2000. The reason for that is his own continued support of the war in Iraq.
Decrying the partisan tone of the times, Lieberman noted that "some of this wrong-headed thinking about the world is happening because we're in a political climate where, for many people, when George Bush says, 'yes,' their reflex reaction is to say 'no.' "
Lamenting the fervor of the stop-the-war crowd and the corresponding growing apathy about the war on terror, Lieberman noted "there is something profoundly wrong when opposition to the war seems to inspire greater passion than opposition to Islamist extremism."
And there's probably no other sector of the population about which this is more true than American Jewry. Every poll shows that Jewish views about the war in Iraq are more negative than even those of the general public. Part of this can be explained by the partisanship to which Lieberman referred since the overwhelming majority of Jews are Democrats. But as the war entered its fifth year last week, weariness with the bloody stalemate cannot be dismissed as mere party bickering.
SO IT IS hardly surprising that many critics are assailing Jewish organizations like AIPAC for trying desperately to stay neutral on the war even as they continued to speak out about Iran.
Earlier this month, the Union of Reform Judaism, which passed an anti-war resolution in 2005, again broke this mold by adopting a resolution opposing the sending of more US troops to Iraq. They were joined by the smaller Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, which not only demanded a complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq but upped the ante by also stating its opposition to any preemptive US attacks on Iran.
Given the growing unpopularity of both the war and Bush, there is going to be increasing pressure on other groups to follow their lead. And yet, Cheney as well as Lieberman both made a telling point that has yet to be answered by the war's critics.
It is argued that America's Iraq quagmire limits our ability to restrain or even to strike at an Iranian regime that is trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and has made it clear it might use them against Israel.
That might have been, had it been put forward four years ago, a valid argument against invading Iraq. But it's not a good argument for leaving it now that the war is a reality. Having created a political vacuum in Baghdad, it is not possible to pull out of the war without Iran filling up that empty space.
The idea that an American defeat in Iraq - and like it or not, that is what the sort of a withdrawal contemplated by some in Congress will be considered in the Muslim world - would make it easier to prevail against Iran is ludicrous. Such an outcome would similarly embolden Iran's Islamist allies elsewhere, such as Hamas and Hizbullah.
After four years of slaughter and sacrifice by American troops, the notion that the toppling of Saddam Hussein is going to lead to Iraqi democracy seems far-fetched. Few seem to have any clear idea about what would actually constitute a "victory."
But we do know what defeat would mean. And for all the Vietnam analogies that are thrown about so much these days, that is the one thing that is the same about today's anti-war movement and the one that ultimately prevailed in the 1970s.
THOSE WHO successfully argued for a pullout from Vietnam to avoid involvement in another civil war thought little about the awful consequences of that defeat for the people of Southeast Asia. But they were right in that even the worst of those crimes had little impact on US strategic interests. America was able to leave its Vietnam nightmare safely behind after the last G.I. fled Saigon.
But the Iraq debacle offers us no such easy retreat. Whatever we may think about the original reasons for war, the reality of the current conflict is one in which Iran and al-Qaida stand to gain at our expense. Unlike Vietnam, merely pulling out will not end their war with us or with our more vulnerable ally Israel.
Lieberman argues that the new troop surge must be given a fair chance at success before the debate about the war resumes. Perhaps his optimism will be vindicated, but no matter what happens on the battlefield, his appeal for a more clear-headed approach to this question deserves a hearing.
Those who ask the Jewish community to join the anti-war bandwagon must do better than merely bash Bush and Cheney and assail the original rationales for war. They must explain to us why a world in which America bugged out of Iraq will not be a safer one for Iran and al-Qaida, and a riskier one for America and Israel. Until they do, Lieberman's courageous appeal to reason should be heeded.
The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. jtobin@jewishexponent. com