by Mitchell Plitnick
Discussing his outspoken opposition to diplomacy with Iran, Republican Senator Mark Kirk said in a phone briefing for his supporters: “It’s the reason why I ran for the Senate, [it] is all wrapped up in this battle. I am totally dedicated to the survival of the state of Israel in the 21st century.” This is an important statement, and one which bears intense scrutiny at a time when the Obama Administration is trying to walk the United States back from a war footing with Iran, against the wishes of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies and, especially, Israel and its domestic allies.
I hurried to congratulate my colleagues, Ali Gharib and Eli Clifton, for their reporting on Kirk’s private briefing call. I tweeted the following: “Thanks to @AliGharib and @EliClifton, we have Mark Kirk on record stating that he values Israeli interests over US’.” Naturally, I was attacked for “questioning Kirk’s loyalty.” I certainly confess; Twitter is a place for shorthand and bombastic statements, and no doubt, Kirk’s position is more complicated vis a vis US vs. Israeli interests. That’s why the interaction I had with a more sober-minded individual around this, Prof. Brent Sasley of the University of Texas at Arlington, was more probative.
Sasley’s point was that Kirk was more likely echoing the very common view that Israeli and U.S. interests are virtually identical, and that this was at least as plausible an interpretation of what Kirk was quoted as saying. I have known Sasley, online, for a while now, and I know him to be a thoughtful person, and to the extent that people who have never met face to face can call each other friends, I’d like to call him one. I get his point.
But Kirk said what he said. In that sentence, there isn’t a hint of consideration as to whether backing away from war with Iran would be the better move for the United States. Nor does any appear later in the article, as Kirk apparently reiterated his belief that U.S. intelligence could not be trusted if it disagreed with the Israeli version (although both U.S. and Israeli intelligence have generally been in agreement on Iran—it is Israel’s political leadership that has disagreed with both).
One thing that is interesting to note here is the impression one gets from Kirk. He works hand in glove with AIPAC, as he makes absolutely clear in his talk. But I’m not sold that he’s an AIPAC puppet—he comes off a lot more like a true believer, not in a religious sense, but as no less a fanatical disciple of far-right Israeli policies.
MJ Rosenberg, the former AIPAC staffer who has dedicated his work for years now to exposing the Israel lobby’s destructive role in US Middle East policy, as well as to Israel (and, obviously, the Palestinians), said this about Kirk a few years ago: “Why do the PACs love him? It is because Kirk is a pure Israel-firster. For Kirk, Israel can do no wrong. Add to that that he sits on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations where he brings home the bacon for Israel big time. … I would not categorize him as pro-Israel because that would require supporting an end to the deadly status quo. Mark Kirk is just pro-AIPAC and shaking the trees for all the campaign money he can get by his hate rhetoric about Arabs. Playing like he’s ‘pro-Israel’—and not just pro-lobby—has paid off very very well for him.”
I agree, of course, with MJ’s general characterization. And Jim Lobe suggests that Kirk may be at least partly motivated by the campaign cash he has received from pro-Israel PACs as one among many possibilities to explain Kirk’s radical stance. But Kirk seems to me to be a more interesting man than that. He is perhaps the most radical hawk on the Middle East in the Senate. But he is also a Republican who has been a strong supporter of same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Unlike many neo-conservatives, he has a radically anti-immigration agenda as well, largely informed by anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia.
To me, this gives the impression more of a true believer than of a political opportunist. And that’s what I think Kirk is. I think, for whatever reasons, he’d hold these views on Israel if he never received a dime of AIPAC-directed campaign funds (as a reminder to readers, AIPAC does not actually engage in campaign financing directly, but most pro-Israel PACs and major donors donate based on AIPAC’s guidance). It’s a case where the Lobby comes to him, rather than him going to them.
And this is the basis of Sasley’s and my disagreement. In one (actually, it was split into two) of his tweets to me, Brent said “’Israel lobby’-types like to take a quote or two as proof of their accusations. But if you look at consistent language about US interests, values & Israeli interests, values, they’re seen as same. That’s (the) context in which Kirk’s call should be understood.”
Sasley is making an important point here, although whether that was intentional or not is unclear to me. The “Israel lobby” theme can sometimes obscure key nuances. It is often dominated by two extremes, one which tries to downplay the lobby’s role almost to nothing (this position has become far less tenable in recent years) and considers all other views to be evidence of anti-Semitism; and the other extreme which attributes all the ills of U.S. Middle East policy to the lobby’s malign influence. The debate can never end because ultimately, there’s no way to precisely measure the lobby’s actual influence.
The issue of Iran has brought the lobby’s activities into much clearer view, but not its boundaries. There is, without a doubt, a strong current of support for Israel without AIPAC. It comes largely from a small but active and well-heeled section of the U.S. Jewish community, a theology that has come to be known as “Christian Zionism,” deserved guilt over centuries of anti-Semitism (including some complicity and a lot of indifference toward the Holocaust at the time), the strategic alliance between Israel and the U.S. (especially during the Cold War), and the “David vs. Goliath” mythos around Israel. One can write a book on this stuff, and a good number have. But suffice to say it is a mistake to attribute all of even the myopic support for Israeli policies to the lobby.
So, yes, I think Kirk is a true believer, and that really is the point. Because maybe Brent is right, and Kirk simply believes that U.S. interests are best served by following Israel’s lead. Maybe he believes that the U.S. has a God-given mission to support Israel in all its hawkish and self-destructive extremism.
In the end, it doesn’t matter, because it still amounts to the same thing – subordinating US policy to Israel in a crucial arena. I don’t know whether Brent thinks of me as one of the “Israel Lobby” types, but both John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have known me for years and both are aware that, while I agreed with much of their thesis, I publicly disagreed with their points regarding the war on Iraq and their conflation of neoconservatives and the Israel Lobby. I have also written dozens of articles about the destructive role of the Israel Lobby.
But I don’t really care about Mark Kirk’s patriotism. No one has ever accused me of an over-abundance of national pride. What I do think is important, however, is that people understand what their representatives are doing. Mark Kirk is fighting tooth and nail for an attack on Iran(although he insists he wants a peaceful solution amounting to Iran’s surrender, the same rhetorical trick Benjamin Netanyahu employs) because he believes it is in Israel’s best interests. Even accepting Brent’s argument that his view is that protecting Israel’s interests is vital, in and of itself, to US interests, then this logic needs to be articulated and debated.
Personally, I doubt many US citizens are prepared to accept that the US should engage in another Middle East military adventure for the sake of Israel. Maybe others think differently. But Kirk makes it clear that this is all about Israel, and that is what I was putting out there, perhaps clumsily. That needs to be brought into the light and debated with vigor.