Once, at a crisis in American foreign relations, a respected Republican senator from Michigan affirmed that “politics stops at the water’s edge.”
By “politics,” Arthur Vandenberg meant partisanship. But even where there is substantial bipartisan accord, the negative effects of allowing domestic political considerations to have inordinate influence over American foreign policy seem clear. This is particularly true regarding the Middle East.
Maine’s senior senator, Susan Collins, offers a case in point. Back in November, in response to a message urging her to cosponsor Senate Resolution 203 expressing support for Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, the senator wrote advising me that Israel is “our only fully democratic ally” in the Middle East and that we must lend security assistance to that country because “threats” against it are “ever present.”
In two sentences, Collins overstated both Israel’s democratic credentials — evidence of bias in favor of Jews and against Palestinians is considerable — and the degree of danger in which that very well-armed state finds itself. Although she expressed general support for a negotiated “2-State solution,” Collins did not, and still has not, co-sponsored Resolution 203.
Since then, Collins has signed a letter to Kerry warning against negotiating agreements with Iran too lenient for the signers’ liking, and co-sponsored a bill, S. 1881, that would impose tightened sanctions if Iran fails to come to terms within a defined period or refuses agreement entirely.
The senator has written that S. 1881 would augment the president’s diplomatic efforts with the threat of further sanctions. This “good cop, bad cop” tactic is plausible. However, the president has promised to veto S. 1881 if it passes Congress. Moreover, Collins’ colleague, Maine Sen. Angus King and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan recently published a New York Times OpEd arguing that enacting S. 1881 would embolden Iranian conservatives who want to scuttle the talks just as much as hardliners here.
Collins and a majority of her colleagues, by backing S. 1881 and neglecting Resolution 203, appear to support measures that bring us closer to war while failing to back Kerry’s efforts toward peace. Why would they do this?
Perhaps because old habits die hard. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, no enemy of Israel, wrote in November of the “tendency by many American lawmakers to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations.”
It is evident that the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington has played a key role in the development of S. 1881. Among others, one provision appears to grant Israel carte blanche to attack Iran if it feels “compelled” to do so and calls for full American support, including military participation, if that happens. Collins and 58 colleagues, then, are apparently willing to subcontract to Israel the decision to go to war.
This may be bizarre and disturbing, but it should not be surprising. Collins and even larger majorities of her colleagues in both parties have countless times dutifully adhered to the pro-Israel lobby’s demands on behalf of Israeli government policies.
Conflation of Israeli and American national interests and virtually complete neglect of any consideration of justice or self-determination for Palestinians have been characteristic of congressional behavior and American policies toward the Middle East in general.
Collins cites overwhelming bipartisan agreement on such exercises in pro-Israel orthodoxy, presumably as testimony to their soundness. Perhaps they enjoy widespread support, but these policies don’t represent the kind of bipartisanship Vandenberg advocated in 1948. Foremost among those appalled by this congressional pathology are certain Jewish friends of Israel, such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now, who understand how counterproductive such actions are.
But why single out Collins? Because she is Maine’s senior senator and as much a part of the problem as anyone. And because the way to Israeli — and American — peace and security lies not in perennial confrontation with Iran but in a fair agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. One has to start somewhere.
Ed McCarthy of Vienna is New England co-coordinator for Churches for Middle East Peace. The views stated are his own.