Syria Debate Throws Pro-Israel Groups For A Loss

Syria’s declaration that it would accept a Russian proposal to hand over its chemical weapons to an international body was the latest in a string of surprises around international concern over the ongoing, horrific civil war in that country. It is extremely premature, at this point, to declare the threat of a US escalation over, but the delay this proposal produced does go a long way toward lowering the heat on the crisis and, at minimum, stretching the timetable.

President Obama’s willingness to bring this idea to the U.N. Security Council opens the door to averting a U.S. strike and pushes back the likely strike date and a congressional vote on Obama’s decision. That has led to a collective sigh of relief, at least for the moment, throughout the country. And nowhere has that sound been louder than in the offices of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

The debate has been a difficult one in Washington. A hawkish minority see striking Syria as a necessary deterrent, both to Bashar al-Assad reusing chemical weapons and emboldening Iran to pursue nuclear weapons, a decision hawks think will be influenced by a perception that the U.S. is so reluctant to get involved in another military escapade that it will not back up threats of using force. That’s what is meant by “protecting U.S. credibility.” But the majority of the U.S. public and, at least for the time being, the House of Representatives seems to be opposed to Obama’s idea of hitting Syria.

In one of a series of surprises around this issue, AIPAC publicly dove in to the Syria debate in DC, and faced the most daunting challenge they had in many years. One of the things that gives AIPAC its air of invincibility is their astounding record of success on Capitol Hill. One of the reasons they have that record is that they rarely get into fights they are not sure they are going to win. This one was far from that.

A vote held immediately after the president announced he was going to request authorization from Congress would have likely been unsuccessful. Some, myself included, believed that a full court press by the president combined with hard lobbying by AIPAC and the Saudis would, over the course of time, sway enough votes to give the president what he wanted. I’m pretty sure the Senate, in any case, will support Obama. The House is certainly more questionable.

If the vote in either chamber went against the president, it would mean an unprecedented loss for AIPAC. They’ve lost before, but never when they were working with, rather than against, the president of the United States. That they got involved with such an iffy proposition can only be explained by an Israeli desire to see Obama win this one, but also for the Israeli government itself — which, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced unprecedented criticism for interfering in U.S. politics — to remain distant from the debate. In a most unusual development, it is Obama who keeps talking about Israel being a factor in his decision. AIPAC has adamantly refused to name Israeli concerns as a reason for their support of an attack on Syria.

Chemi Shalev, the very sharp Washington correspondent for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz wrote:

If AIPAC goes ‘all out,’ as Politico reported on Thursday, and ‘250 Jewish leaders and AIPAC activists will storm the halls on Capitol Hill beginning next week,’ but the House of Representatives nonetheless votes against the President, then the lobby’s image of invincibility, to which it owes much of its influence, will inevitably be jeopardized.

I’m not sure AIPAC’s air of invincibility would be jeopardized so much as it might be slightly diminished, another step on the unfortunately long road to normalizing the U.S. discussion of Middle East policy.

The other, younger and more moderate side of the Israel Lobby, J Street, had its own problems with the Syria issue. Internal debate in the organization had a stymying effect and left them without a position. While some were content with no stance from the “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” lobbying group, their silence can hurt them in the long term on the Hill.

Long-time DC observer Ron Kampeas has it just right when he says:

One of the most effective ways for lobbyists to accrue influence on the Hill is to convey to overwhelmed congresspersons and their staffers that the lobby has the expertise to help them arrive at an informed opinion. And if in addition to expertise, your lobby has a cadre of seasoned staffers who are able to shape a lawmaker’s concerns into legislative language that is likely to attract cosponsors and even achieve passage (the golden ring for a body that passes less than five percent of its proposed legislation), then you have influence.

J Street has been able to make some headway in recent years in campaign fundraising. But they have not been able to establish themselves as a reliable source of expertise on Capitol Hill. AIPAC remains a source for expert analysis, and that has a great effect on how members of Congress and their staffers, except for those few who actually have their own expertise on the Middle East, end up voting on Middle East matters. As Kampeas says, J Street wants influence, “…and answering ‘We dunno’ on Syria is not the way to go about earning it.”

J Street bills itself as the group that “has Obama’s back.” That involves giving him political cover to exert some moderate pressure on Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians, which, to date, they really have not been able to deliver (but they’re young — AIPAC also took a good number of years to build the sort of gravitas it has). J Street can also recover from the Syria crisis, as long as it doesn’t have more incidents where its own membership and leadership are so divided on an issue that they can’t take a stance.

But AIPAC has already taken a hit by openly lobbying, and declaring that it will flex serious muscle, in support of a military action that, for better or worse, is opposed by the majority of US citizens. If the issue does come to a vote, which still seems likely, and they lose one or both congressional chambers (which I don’t think will happen, but I hold a minority view), it will be a more serious blow. That’s reinforced by the fact that not only AIPAC, but also a lot of the more mainstream Jewish groups that tend to follow it, like the American Jewish Committee and World Jewish Congress, have come out forcefully behind a strike on Syria, and continued to press the point, even after the Russian proposal.

But I don’t think this will be as damaging as either Shalev or MJ Rosenberg think it will be. There is still no significant opposition to AIPAC’s lobbying power; this question was not directly connected to Israeli policy; and the most powerful tool in AIPAC’s arsenal — the public US misunderstanding of the Middle East, the Arab world and Israel, and especially the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict — is still in place, as is the perception that AIPAC speaks for, not the Jewish community as is often argued, but Jewish donors. US Jews make up a wildly disproportionate fraction of individual political gift givers, but while some large donors like Sheldon Adelson or Haim Saban are very clear about the decisive role Israel plays in where their money goes, it is far less clear how important Israel is in broader Jewish donations, and it’s virtually certain that the issue is not as prominent as is commonly argued.

Still, just by going so public with the Syria issue, AIPAC has suffered a setback, and this has not been lost on Israelis. Leaders and opinion makers in Israel from the liberal Ha’aretz to veteran Israeli diplomats are criticizing AIPAC for their actions on Syria. It’s not a huge hit, but AIPAC will feel it. If only someone, be it J Street or another group, would just take advantage of this opportunity…

Syria Spotlights Problematic International Law

Russia is not staying silent as the US appears to be positioning itself for an attack on the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Defending its last key ally in the region, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the West against intervention. Western nations should avoid repeating “past mistakes,” said Lavrov.

More importantly, Lavrov illustrates just how broken and vaporous the system of “international law” is when it comes to conflict and protecting civilians. “The use of force without the approval of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is a very grave violation of international law,” he said. And there is no question that he is correct.

An intervention in Syria requires the approval of the Security Council in order to be comply with international law. Such authorizations are, quite naturally, exceedingly rare. Not only does it require a majority vote in the Council, but, more importantly, all five permanent members of the Council (the US, Russia, China, Great Britain and France) must also agree. Any one of those countries can exercise its right to veto any resolution before the Council.

The idea, in 1945, made some sense. In the post-World War II era, there was still some question as to whether the US and USSR would perhaps build on their wartime alliance and find a way to work together, but it seemed unlikely. An incentive to maintain some sense of order in the world by working together on such matters and being able to block one-sided moves might have seemed sensible. It’s even worked out that way from time to time. But for the most part, it’s been a recipe for paralysis and a means to prevent action on matters of global concern, rather than to promote it.

The most obvious example of this is the matter on which there has been, by far, more Security Council vetoes than any other: Israel’s occupation of territories captured in the 1967 war. From 1946-1971, the USSR was the overwhelming leader in Security Council vetoes; no other country was even close. These were, of course, mostly Cold War-related resolutions that directly or indirectly took aim at Soviet actions and policies in various parts of the world. Since then, the overwhelming leader has been the United States, with the clear majority of those vetoes being made on behalf of Israel, protecting its occupation and concomitant violence and settlement expansion.

Indeed, in recent years, the problem has gotten so bad that most resolutions regarding Israel-Palestine have been withdrawn in advance, knowing the US will veto as a matter of course. The matter reached its ultimate absurdity in 2011, when the Obama administration vetoed a UNSC resolution that stated nothing at all that was not already official US policy. But the veto was expected and required. The fact that it was such a moderate resolution raised fears among AIPAC and its various fellow travellers in the Israel lobby, and there was a lot of public pressure on Obama to veto. But there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t have done so anyway.

Politics and power, not international law, govern international matters. The fact is that legality will have no bearing on the US decision to attack Syria or refrain from taking action. The decision will be based on strategy and politics.

The system of international law is irreparably broken. Ultimately, any system of law depends entirely on the ability of the judicial body to enact penalties and sanctions on lawbreakers. Such penalties don’t exist for the United States, nor for Russia or China or the other members of the Security Council. Britain and France are more compliant with international law than the others, but this is due not to fear of censure but because their own situations (including widespread European support for abiding by international law, as well as the experience of the two World Wars and the end of colonialism, the latter having removed a lot of European disincentives toward international law) push them in that direction.

Indeed, it is worth asking this question: if one believes that intervention in Syria is needed to stop what is already a humanitarian disaster from getting much worse, should international law be ignored in doing so? It seems inescapable that the answer to that question is yes, and one is then left with only the question of whether military intervention will help or hurt the millions of Syrians in the crossfire.

But at what point can we claim with reasonable certainty that the moral imperative trumps the law? Particularly in a hypothetical world where the law actually matters, where should that line be drawn? In point of fact, few people are so naïve as to believe that military intervention ever occurs for purely humanitarian reasons. It is generally done in order to pursue the invading country’s interests, and if some humanitarian good is done on the way, well that is just fine. And most of the time, the humanitarian interests are only a cover for other goals; the situation is often oversimplified so the public will support the intervention, which is sometimes vastly distorted.

In this instance, it is Russia warning the United States against violating international law, but the US has played the same game on many occasions — the 2003 push for a UN imprimatur for the invasion of Iraq being perhaps the most prominent and revolting instance.

The alternative to a world governed by international law is a world where might makes right. That is, indeed, the world in which we live. The point here is not that international law should be done away with. On the contrary, it must be strengthened exponentially. A legal system that can enjoy at least some insulation from the whims of politics, both domestic and international, is crucial, and the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice have at least some of that. But more importantly, there must be a mechanism where even the most powerful country can be held accountable for violating the law.

Such a system will never be perfect, of course. Even in the realm of domestic law, we regularly see differences in how it is applied and defied by the rich and the poor. But even the wealthiest individuals have to at least consider their actions when breaking the law. Some system where powerful actors are treated the same as everyone else must be put into place. The answer to how that can be achieved is for better minds than mine, but asking the question is the first step.

Other aspects need revision or at least revisiting as well. Sovereignty is a crucial principle, without a doubt, but it is also used by tyrants to shield themselves from, for example, reprisals under international human rights law. The debate over intervening in Syria following alleged chemical weapons use by the Syrian government is inherently related to the current system of international law, which is broken far beyond the point of having any effectiveness. In many ways, it is an obstacle. It needs to be rebuilt, before more Syrias confront us.