US Affairs: How AIPAC handled Obama’s U-turn

The pro-Israel lobby signaled clearly to the White House that it was in its corner on the Syrian issue.

Obama addresses the AIPAC policy conference in Washington. (photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS)
Obama addresses the AIPAC policy conference in Washington.
(photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS)
Did AIPAC, the mighty America Israel Public Affairs Committee, stumble badly in lobbying US lawmakers to support a strike on Syria, only to see the United States and Russia cobble together a deal to get Damascus to disarm its chemical weapons arsenal? The many enemies and critics of the pro-Israel lobby, on both the extreme right and extreme left, certainly think so. But the truth seems to be very different.
AIPAC has reacted cautiously to the news of a deal between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to get Syria to surrender its massive arsenal of chemical weapons. “A deal on these terms would be a welcome turn of events,” the organization acknowledged in a statement on September 16.
“However,” AIPIAC continued, “the Obama Administration and many in Congress have expressed deep skepticism about Syria’s actual willingness to implement this farreaching arrangement. President Barack Obama has ordered that American forces remain ready to carry out a military operation should that prove necessary.”
Two weeks earlier, as the crisis mounted, AIPAC clearly tried to stay on the fence and maintain a low profile, as concern over Syria’s use of poison gas against the rebel coalition grew. The case for US intervention with air strikes was led by National Security Adviser Susan Rice and US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. There was no open debate or split in the administration on the issue. Publicly at least, Secretary of State Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were fully on board.
Therefore, on September 3, AIPAC issued a public statement in which it urged “Congress to grant the president the authority he has requested to protect America’s national security interests and dissuade the Syrian regime’s further use of unconventional weapons. The civilized world cannot tolerate the use of these barbaric weapons, particularly against an innocent civilian population including hundreds of children,” the lobby said.
It also put support for Obama in a wider context at “a critical moment when America must also send a forceful message of resolve to Iran and Hezbollah – both of whom have provided direct and extensive military support to Assad… That is why America must act, and why we must prevent further proliferation of unconventional weapons in this region.” The statement went on to describe the upcoming vote on the issue as “momentous.”
However, Democratic support for the strikes quickly started crumbling in Congress, especially in the House of Representatives.
Republicans clearly sensed an opportunity to bash Obama for reckless intervention in the Middle East, before US forces had even been withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. With breathless chutzpa, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the main driving force behind the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, joined the public foes of intervention.
Other high-profile supporters of the 2003 Iraq invasion, from Peter Beinart on the left to Daniel Pipes on the right, also opposed intervention for different reasons.
There were also clear signs of public opposition to intervention. Opinion polls showed a regular majority, sometimes as high as two-thirds of those asked, opposed intervention. A poll carried out by the Army Times showed 75 percent of serving troops were against getting involved in Syria.
From the point of view of Israel’s security, the situation too was far from clear-cut. On the one hand, Syria, in its rhetoric, has been consistently ferocious in its hatred of the Jewish state over the decades, far longer and far more so than any other frontline Arab state. The arsenal of chemical weapons and short-to-medium-range ballistic missiles the Syrians have built up constitutes a very serious threat to Israel’s civilian population.
The Assad dynasty has ruled over the Syrian people as utterly ruthless tyrants for 43 years, with more brutality by far than any other Arab regime has ever shown its people, with the exception of Saddam Hussein’s 35-year reign of terror over Iraq, from 1978 to 2003.
There was, however, another side to the picture. In the more than 30 years since the 1982 Israel-Syria tank battles during the First Lebanon War, Hafez and Bashar Assad had scrupulously upheld and enforced peace and security with Israel on their common frontier, and not a single Israeli or Syrian soldier was killed in direct clashes in all that time.
The rebel forces in Syria have carried out acts of violence and atrocities almost as horrific as those of the government. The chaotic spectrum of forces in the rebel coalition includes al-Qaeda and other extreme Islamist groups. Prior to the current conflict, Syria’s historic Orthodox Christian community, once as much as 10 percent of the total population, had enjoyed, despite poverty and oppression, a basic level of protection and tolerance under the secular Assad governments. Now, reports increasingly document the destruction of Christian churches and attacks on Christian villages by elements of the rebel forces.
Also, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has scrupulously avoided any intervention in Syria – as has Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In this atmosphere, AIPAC’s initial decision to stay on the fence made great tactical sense.
The situation, however, changed when Obama took the decision to intervene and authorize US air strikes in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons in the conflict. Now the issue became the willingness of Israel’s friends in the United States to stand up and be counted in loyal support of the president’s initiative.
This policy also made political sense for the government of Israel. There has never been any personal love lost between Obama and Netanyahu. During the US presidential election campaign last year, Netanyahu was perceived as publicly endorsing a leading candidate – and that candidate was Republican Mitt Romney. He lost.
However, above all, Obama and Netanyahu are both superb tactical politicians and both know their history very well. The Harvard Law School and MIT graduates both recognized that for a US president and Israeli prime minister to stumble into a head-on confrontation on anything would be political suicide for both of them. That was the lesson every leader of both countries drew from the disastrous 1991-92 showdown between George Herbert Walker Bush and Yitzhak Shamir on the issue of $10 billion in US loan guarantees to Israel to help settle recent immigrants from the collapsed Soviet Union.
Publicly, Netanyahu and Obama have been correct in their regard for each other; and in his four-and-a-half years in office so far, the president has shown a consistent friendship and support for Israel through every turn. It therefore made complete sense for AIPAC to call out its activists to lobby Congressmobilization.
Beginning September 9, the advocacy group dispatched more than 200 activists to Washington, “where they urged members of Congress to pass resolutions in both the House and the Senate authorizing the air strikes on Syria,” Christina Willkie wrote in The Huffington Post on September 14. The Times of Israel noted that AIPAC officials held over 300 meetings on the issue on Capitol Hill.
“The powerful pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, is planning to launch a major lobbying campaign to push wayward lawmakers to back the resolution authorizing US strikes against Syria,” the highly respected and influential Capitol Hill newspaper, Politico, reported on September 5. “Officials say that some 250 Jewish leaders and AIPAC activists will storm the halls on Capitol Hill beginning next week to persuade lawmakers that Congress must adopt the resolution or risk emboldening Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon,” reporter Manu Raju wrote.
“They are expected to lobby virtually every member of Congress, arguing that ‘barbarism’ by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated, and that failing to act would ‘send a message’ to Tehran that the US won’t stand up to hostile countries’ efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.” Raju continued, citing a source in the organization.
However, as many observers noted, even in support of Obama, AIPAC’s mobilization, while serious, was not wholehearted. Those who have observed AIPAC’s all-out efforts for what its leaders have assessed as truly crucial issues over the decades could see that the initial lobbying effort to support a congressional resolution authorizing US military action against Syria was not remotely of the same magnitude.
“Even as AIPAC’s activists blanketed the hill, the group’s signature, bare-knuckle political pressure seemed to be lacking,” The Huffington Post’s Willkie acknowledged.
AIPAC continues to be routinely – and accurately – portrayed as the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill on foreign affairs, just as the National Rifle Association has an equally invincible reputation among domestic lobbyists. But that reputation has also always rested on knowing when to pick its fights, and when not to.
“Despite the group’s political muscle, it often doesn’t get involved in congressional fights over authorizing military action,” Politico’s Raju noted.
There is another, widely overlooked, dimension to AIPAC’s decision to support Obama when he asked for the congressional resolution. The domestic political landscape of the US is starting to change in ways not seen in more than 30 years, since Ronald Reagan’s unexpectedly wide victory over incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980. Rand Paul is emerging rapidly as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, backed by hardcore Tea Party activists. The Evangelical community, while still strongly pro-Israel, has come out, at best, deeply divided over intervention in Syria.
The Republican Party, therefore, shows strong signs of reverting to a neo-isolationism in foreign policy it has not expressed in more than 60 years, since Robert Taft, an opponent of joining NATO, was defeated for the 1952 presidential nomination by eventual winner, Dwight Eisenhower. Currently, all signs are that the deeply divided GOP will be cannon fodder for the Democratic candidate seeking to succeed Obama in 2016, with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton currently the clear front-runner.
This means that it is in Israel’s and AIPAC’s best interests to focus on cultivating ever stronger and more lasting ties with the Democratic Party and its national security establishment. The last thing AIPAC now wants is to be seen as reluctant to support the president on any initiative that offers hope of increased security for Israel, be it air strikes on Syria or the negotiation of a credible deal forcing Syria to surrender its chemical weapons stocks.
Obama’s U-turn on Syria, approving the chemical weapons deal with Russia, let the president off the hook from a congressional vote he looked increasingly likely to lose. It let AIPAC off that hook too.
But the pro-Israel lobby had signaled clearly to the White House that it was in its corner. The precedent was set for further collaboration between the administration and the lobby in the future.
In addition, AIPAC hasn’t lost any of the grass-roots support across the American Jewish community, or the massive financial muscle that has always been its bedrock strength. Far from weakening AIPAC’s fundamental clout, Obama’s political and diplomatic maneuverings over Syria have enabled the organization to dodge a head-on confrontation that might have damaged it. It also avoided coming out on the losing side of a congressional resolution fight that could have damaged its reputation. And the organization made it clear in its September 16 statement that it was still ready to support the use of armed force, if Syria tried to renege on the chemical weapons agreement.
For AIPAC, as for the president, the whole issue worked out far better than it appeared.