AIPAC, Beltway Once Left Assad Alone

AIPAC, Beltway Once Left Assad Alone

As pro-Israel organizations begin to weigh in strongly in favor of President Barack Obama’s proposed attack on Syria, it is worth remembering that the most influential, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), once believed (wrongly, in my view) that leaving Assad alone was best for the U.S. and for Israel.

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011, I once put it to a senior AIPAC official that Obama’s foreign policy had essentially been a failure–that, driven by anti-colonial views (from Columbia, not Kenya), he had abandoned pro-American leaders and failed to act against anti-American regimes such as Iran and Syria.

The predominant thinking inside the Beltway at the time, despite Israel’s increasingly vocal criticism of the Syrian regime’s abuses, was that Obama’s restraint on Syria had been wise because Assad, while brutal, was a stabilizing leader, and a predictable one who could be counted on to act in his own personal interests.

I believed then, and believe today, that the U.S. ought to act against Assad as part of a broader strategy that faces up to the core challenge of Iran. That is still apparently not what Obama believes, and despite the wishful thinking of pro-Israel groups (and perhaps some Israeli leaders), not what he is likely to undertake.

The impression being created by pro-Israel groups’ sudden advocacy on Syria may be that Israel actually wants the U.S. to attack. But key Israeli officials, such as outspoken Defense Minister Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon say Israel is not involved in any U.S. plans, or even the American “red line” on chemical weapons.

It seems pro-Israel groups are carrying water for Obama, not Israel. That effectively includes the Republican Jewish Coalition, which is enthusiastically supporting Obama’s absurdly limited Syria war aims (which even former UN Ambassador John Bolton, no squish on unilateral force, says that Congress should oppose).

Perhaps the thinking is that that any step towards taking Iran seriously is to be encouraged–or that a weakened U.S. president, which Obama will be if a Syria vote fails, will be unable to act on Iran. But even with good intentions, that is a dangerous game, one that could easily backfire against the pro-Israel cause.

During the fight over Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s nomination, AIPAC stayed out. Now that Hagel (along with John Kerry and Obama) has reversed what he believed on foreign policy and Syria in particular, AIPAC is all-in. But that’s less policy consistency than pro-Obama consistency. And it is probably unwise.