The debate over the Iran nuclear deal signed last week is just beginning but the willingness of the administration to smear its opponents is already clear. Both in his speech yesterday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Pittsburgh and then later on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, President Obama cast the divide on the issue as one between warmongers and peacemakers, linking opponents to the Iraq War. Having won the presidency twice by running against George W. Bush, it is hardly surprising that he would return to that familiar theme. Nor is it any shock that he would, as he has throughout a period in which he systematically abandoned his past stands on what a deal with Iran should look like, claimed that the only alternative to surrendering to Tehran’s demands was war. But there was one line in his softball interview with Stewart that should have set off alarm bells throughout the pro-Israel community, including among those who are loyal Democrats and inclined to support the White House on this and any other issue. By urging citizens to contact Congress to counteract the influence of “the money, the lobbyists,” Obama was smearing the pro-Israel community and AIPAC as seeking to involve the country in a war where “they would not going to be making sacrifices.” In doing so, he conjured up memories of both President George H.W. Bush’s controversial stand against AIPAC during the 1991 debate about loan guarantees to Israel but also writer Pat Buchanan’s claim that Jews were pushing for wars in which they wouldn’t fight.
Obama’s claims that the only alternative to his appeasement of Iran would be war have always been a false choice. Having cornered Iran into negotiations after being forced by Congress to accept harsher sanctions than he wanted, Obama immediately discarded all the West’s political and military leverage by agreeing to Iranian demands about allowing them to enrich uranium and keep their nuclear infrastructure in secret talks in 2013. This came only a year after he had pledged in his foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney that any Iran deal would require them to give up their nuclear program. Over the course of the next two years, he systematically abandoned nearly every previous U.S. on the issue and eventually agreed to a pact that expired after ten years and even guaranteed the Iranians the right to continue nuclear research and with an inspections program that gave them 24 days notice. Having undermined the international consensus in favor of isolating Iran, he now accuses critics of wanting war. But all they have been asking for is the sort of tough diplomacy that would have avoided the kind of proliferation that his deal makes inevitable.
The analogies with Iraq and the invocation of the name of former Vice President Dick Cheney is a punch line, not a coherent argument. There is no comparison between a willingness to allow Iran to become a threshold nuclear state and to enrich the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism and the decision to topple Saddam Hussein. But it is an attempt to signal to Democrats that Obama sees Iran appeasement as a core partisan issue on which no dissent should be tolerated. And that is the context in which Obama’s cracks about money and lobbyists and who makes the sacrifices should be viewed.
In 1991, when the elder President Bush was seeking to undermine support for Israel, he let loose with a memorable rant to the White House press corps about being “one lonely little guy” fighting a big powerful AIPAC. That was a gross distortion of reality, especially since AIPAC’s power could not be compared to the influence of the oil industry and the pro-Arab lobby with which the president was apparently more comfortable. Pro-Israel and Jewish groups that saw him as invoking arguments that smacked of traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes rightly excoriated Bush. Buchanan was similarly criticized for the same kind of sleight of hand when he falsely tried to cast the argument about the first Gulf War as one in which Jews were pushing other Americans to fight a war they would sit out.
Though the case for the Iran deal is weak, it is one on which a civil debate is possible. But the administration’s line that opponents want war is not only misleading, it is an attempt to avoid rational debate and to demonize the president’s critics. Yet the fact that Obama is now using the same sort of language that once was clearly labeled as out of bounds when they were employed by Republicans is not only reprehensible. It is a challenge to pro-Israel and Jewish Democrats that they cannot ignore.
Jewish Republicans and other pro-Israel conservatives never forgave George H.W. Bush for his slur about AIPAC and he paid a heavy political price for it in his 1992 re-election bid. It is too late to hold Obama accountable in a similar manner but that does not relieve Jewish liberals and Democrats from warning Obama to stand down on his attempt to employ the same kinds of smears against supporters of Israel on the Iran deal. While Obama’s goal is to make Iran a partisan issue on which pro-Israel Democrats will choose loyalty to the president over principle, it does not excuse members of his party from their obligation to stand up against these sort of vile tactics. If they fail to speak out against the Obama lobby smear, they will not merely be acquiescing amid the marginalization of the pro-Israel community, they will be giving a seal of approval to the sort of behavior that they were quick to denounce when Republicans were the offenders.