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Jewish Neocons Are Dead Wrong, Not Disloyal

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There are few Americans whose ideas offend me more than Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defense who played a major role in planning and promoting the invasion of Iraq. I joined demonstrations to try to stop that invasion and am appalled that the preemptive war fetishists now have their sites set on Iran. But I believe Feith, Cheney aide David Wurmser and other Jewish war planners have gotten a raw deal from those who accuse them of putting Israel's interests ahead of America's.

The dual loyalty accusation has become conventional wisdom in the anti-Israel neighborhoods of the blogosphere and has been given academic respectability by John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt. In their new book, as in their original essay, the two profs report that in 2002, "Ha'aretz columnist Akiva Eldar warned that Feith and [Richard] Perle 'are walking a fine line between their loyalty to American governments...and Israeli interests.'" They note that Iraq war chronicler George Packer believed that "`For Feith and Wurmser, the security of Israel was probably the prime mover'" when they planned the war.

Elsewhere, Juan Cole once opined, "Having a Likudnik as the number three man in the Pentagon is a nightmare for American national security, since Feith could never be trusted to put U.S. interests over those of Ariel Sharon."

Those are very serious allegations, tantamount to accusing government officials of outright treason. Whoever makes them should have incontrovertible evidence. What the accusers have is circumstantial and flimsy. M&W note Feith's connections with "hardline" Israeli groups, his op-eds supporting Israeli settlers and the infamous paper, "A Clean Break," which war-for-Israel theorists claim is their smoking gun.

Feith, Perle and Wurmser are said to have co-authored "A Clean Break" for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in 1997 [Feith claims Wurmser is the sole author]. It calls for Netanyahu to reject the Oslo process, get tough with Syria by launching surgical strikes in Lebanon, and support the Hashemites of Jordan in their power struggle with Syria by, among other things, helping them remove Saddam Hussein from power.

That grab-bag of Machiavellian fantasies certainly captures the spirit of adventurous preemption that characterized the Iraq war. So what does that prove? Neocons favored the unapologetic use of military force and the dismantling of foreign governments in Nicaragua, Grenada, and the Balkans, not just the Middle East. It's not surprising that some of them recommended the same approach to Netanyahu. That they eventually recommended it to G.W. Bush does not necessarily reveal anything about their loyalties or motivations. All it reveals is an obnoxious, wrong-headed worldview. If Venezuela had a lot more oil and Hugo Chavez were more provocative or tyrannical, they would want to depose him, too.

Recent, impassioned chatter about dual loyalty and Mearsheimer and Walt's war-for-Israel theory has drowned out a far more important conversation about this ideology of preemptive militarism and interventionism. It gained powerful adherents right after 9/11, when Rumsfeld and Cheney decided to go after Saddam, in part because they wanted to send the message that the U.S. would not be content with attacking Afghanistan. They wanted terrorists and their paymasters to realize that the U.S. would strike its "enemies" anywhere and anytime it damned well pleased. That had nothing whatsoever to do with Israel; it had everything to do with American machismo.

Still, reasonable people can and do disagree about the extent to which Israel or its American supporters also factored into the Bush administration's decision to wage war. But it is unreasonable to accuse Feith and his pals of divided loyalties without tangible proof.

Last year, I contacted Feith to get his take on the accusations against him for a magazine article. "I confess to being a conservative," he said. "I have a conservative view of how to protect and preserve democracies. That affects my views of U.S. interests, British interests, Japan's interests and Israel's interests. There are problems inherent in the practice of democratic countries negotiating with anti-democratic entities. The parties to the negotiations differ from each other regarding goals, tactics and constraints. This applies to all democratic countries, including Israel."

He added, "The only justification for going to war with Saddam was that he was a danger to the United States and our vital interests. The President decided that the risk of Saddam's making biological or eventually nuclear weapons available to terrorists was unacceptable, especially after 9/11."

That was a tragically wrong conclusion. Did Feith and his colleagues also believe the war would benefit Israel? Of course. Because of that belief, did some of them have an extra edge of enthusiasm for the war? Probably. But how can anyone who doesn't reside in Feith's mind assert with smug certainty that Israel was his first, second, fifth or tenth priority when he helped make the case for war?

One intriguing judge of what was on his mind is Karen Kwiatkowski, a retired Colonel who worked at the Pentagon's Near East and South Asia desk from 2001 to 2003. She has written ferocious criticisms of the Iraq war that mention her discomfort at the "pro-Israel, anti-Arab" attitudes of political appointees in the Defense Department and their connections with the Israeli military. But, in an email interview, she called the dual loyalty charge "simplistic, not fact-based."

"The...preemptive war push is part of neo-conservatism, but not particular to those neoconservatives, like Doug Feith...who also happen to be Jewish, " she wrote. "These folks...made their political bones as anti-communists. The so-called Islamists are seen by neoconservatives as the new communism...Neoconservatives wish to see an 'End of Evil' in a big, loud, decisive bang. We see a kind of predisposition for violent confrontation that isn't as much based on loyalty to Israel, but on something much closer to home."

To be sure, in some American neocons, that predisposition was also shaped in part by connections with hard-line Israelis who had a deep mistrust of Arabs and an abiding faith in military solutions to complex problems. In the 1980s, the dedication to Iron Israel, when combined with fierce anti-Communism and a reflexive contempt for anything advocated by the left, created a noxious mixture of ideas. Right-wing Israelis encouraged certain habits of mind in Americans who eventually joined the Bush Administration, a proclivity for shooting first and worrying about the cameras or the UN later.

Now, some American neocons want to inflict this credo of preemptive violence on Iran before Bush leaves office. It is their credo that makes them dangerous, not misplaced loyalties or a lack of commitment to the U.S.