Last night at Columbia’s school of international affairs, Scott Ritter, the former weapons inspector, and former Marine, opened a speech about Iran bracingly, by speaking not of Iran but about the “elephant in the room”: Israel. He said that Israel is our close ally; and if Iran actually intends to develop nuclear weapons, not nuclear power (as the Iranian Ambassador had said, in the speech preceding Ritter’s), and if Iran fails to repudiate Ahmedinejad’s hateful rhetoric about Israel, well then, Israel’s “legitimate national security concerns” are ours, and could even bring war. After all, Ritter said, one nuclear strike on an Israeli city and the small country would be deeply and permanently damaged.
The great thing about Ritter’s speech, before an ambivalent UWS audience, was its bluntness. In that sense, his rhetoric reflected an important lesson of the Iraq war (which Ritter had opposed). We all know, or we ought to by now, that concern for Israel’s security played a role in America’s disastrous war plans. Yet as Philip Zelikow of the 9/11 commission has said, It was an agenda that dare not speak its name. It was generally cloaked in language about bringing democracy to the Middle East that reporters who knew better parroted. This lack of straightforwardness has damaged the country. It has corrupted our journalism and our thinktanks, it has caused enormous bitterness and mistrust—and justifiably. The feeling many Americans now have that they were lied to about the causes of one of the greatest mistakes in our history is going to echo through our lives for a long time…
I think the lack of straightforwardness reflected Jewish fears of antisemitism; that if a Christian nation was actually put to the test, and the alliance with Israel actually cost American lives, the American people would abandon Israel. And so the Middle East Forum likes to put up feel-good billboards saying, Israel’s interest is also the American interest, and Israeli Ambassador Arens likes to say as he did in the Times yesterday that 9/11 put us and you in the same boat, got that? But attack Saddam in part because he has threatened Israel? Friends of Israel don’t like to say that. They fear that the average American would do as Borat says they would do—and throw the Jews down the well. Thus: the Israel lobby, which acts to shield the issue from open public debate.
Last night, Ritter said, We’re not going to abandon “my good friend, the state of Israel,” and I’m going to put that agenda right on the table. Very post-Iraq. I wanted to hug him. Such transparency is essential, when we try to sort out what we’re talking about when we talk about Iran.
Of course the sequel to all this is that in identifying this interest baldly, we get to scrutinize it, everyone gets to weigh in, even Americans who are appalled by Israel’s racialism and militarism. Last night Ritter said that Israel is out of control, “drunk with hubris, arrogance and power.” Jimmy Carter says in a book published tomorrow that Israel’s policies in the West Bank are apartheid. And John Mearsheimer says that this small country’s policies are hurting our standing throughout the Arab world, and America should therefore insist that Israel change its policies, and we should use our full powers to make that happen; and if Israel fails to heed us, change the relationship. There’s a word for what Ritter, Carter and Mearsheimer are doing: discussing.