There was never much doubt that sooner or later any debate about U.S. action on Syria would get around to an effort to drag the “Israel Lobby” canard out of the closet. While some on the right are wrongly characterizing the case for striking the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons as Obama’s war for “al-Qaeda in Syria,” some on the left are back to riding their own favorite hobbyhorses and blaming the whole thing on Israel. That’s the upshot of a piece published on the Atlantic’s website in which James Fallows posted a lengthy quote from William R. Polk in which the author and former State Department staffer seeks not only to claim that the proof of chemical weapons was cooked up by Israel but that the Jewish state used chemical weapons in Lebanon and Gaza. Suffice it to say the former charge is contradicted by the large body of evidence about what happened in Syria that has been made public in the last week as the impact of the most recent use of chemical weapons by Assad became clear. The latter charges are simply lies.
That such weak and nasty stuff should get an airing at the Atlantic is troubling. But it is just as unfortunate to read accounts in other mainstream outlets such as the New York Times that the Obama administration appears to be counting on supporters of Israel to pull the president’s chestnuts out of the fire on Syria. While Israel certainly has an interest in the survival of American influence in the Middle East, the idea of shifting the discussion from one that revolves around America’s credibility and national security to one that seeks to parse the decision as either good or bad for the Jewish state is a profound misreading of the administration’s problem. No endorsement from Israel or AIPAC can substitute for the ability of the president and his team to articulate a case for the sort of action that they know they must take.
Does Israel benefit from U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war, as Polk claims? In principle, the answer to that question has always been no. Israel has no friends in Syria and no matter which side wins that struggle it will be on its guard. But, like every other friend of the United States across the globe, the Jewish state cannot look on at the spectacle of impotence and indecision on the part of President Obama last week with anything but dismay. If the White House requires a congressional vote to get up the nerve to keep his word about a “red line” on chemical weapons, it’s no surprise that many Israelis, like its President Shimon Peres, who is a dedicated fan of Obama, hope he will get it.
It is also true that friends of Israel are deeply worried that if President Obama is unable to respond to a direct challenge in Syria there is little hope he will ever do so on Iran, even though his promises to stop Iran have left him no wriggle room on the issue. As such, many are hoping he will show that when he makes a threat about a weapon of mass destruction, it’s not mere rhetoric as many of the president’s defenders have treated his original “red line” comment. However, there is no guarantee that even if Obama eventually orders a strike on Syria that he will ever act on Iran, even after his latest feckless attempts to engage the ayatollahs inevitably fail. The president’s willingness to keep his word on Iran is as much up in the air as his ultimate intentions in Syria.
But the question of American credibility and influence is bigger than Israel and everyone in Washington knows it. It is not only Jerusalem that should tremble at the dispiriting abdication of responsibility by the president. Those who try and shoehorn this issue into the familiar arguments and myths about the power of the “Israel Lobby” are missing the real issue: whether the United States can effectively go on defending its national interests if the word of its president is allowed to be so flagrantly flaunted by a Middle East butcher like Assad or frustrated by the stacked diplomatic deck at the United Nations. A congressional vote won’t resolve those doubts. Doing so will obligate the president to lead and to make his case for action on its own merits rather than to put the blame on Israel and its friends.