One of the preoccupations of the authors of the American constitution was defining the danger posed to the new body politic by political, social, and economic factions. “By faction,” James Madison, the Constitution’s father, wrote in the justly famous Federalist No. 10,
“I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent interests of the community.”
Now, one must presume that Mr. Madison never imagined that the two houses of the United States Congress and the federal executive branch could conceivably combine with what today is called a “private interest group” — namely AIPAC — to be exactly the sort of faction that would threaten both “the rights of other citizens” and “the permanent interests of the community.” And yet today, that is precisely the spectacle we behold as the Bush administration and both houses of Congress — Republicans and Democrats — continue a bipartisan, three-decade-old policy of supporting Israel without qualm or stint, and without the least concern about what such support means for the welfare and security of American citizens and their families.
In the last week, Americans have seen their president, his advisers, and their elected representatives behave as a pack of well-groomed Pavlovian dogs, while exhibiting equivalent IQ power. Not unlike automatons, Mr. Bush and Secretary Rice spoke the traditional mantra: “Israel has the right to defend itself.” Then, the popularly elected protectors of American interests passed resolutions repeating that mantra with majorities strikingly similar to those Cold War communist rulers could always count on receiving from their so-called parliaments. Finally, this two-branch, AIPAC-funded, mid-term-election-minded faction agreed on the weekend to very publicly dispatch large consignments of U.S.-made precision weapons to fill the recently depleted stocks of the Israeli military. All of these actions were, of course, played out against a backdrop of editorial screeches, claiming “Israel is bravely and nobly fighting America’s and/or the West’s war,” from the likes of such noted U.S.-interests-be-damned voices as Ann Coulter, Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page, William Kristol and the Weekly Standard’s crew of certifiable zanies, and the reliably hysterical FrontPageMag.com.
Well, I think no one — least of all myself — will deny the basic truth that Israel has the right to defend itself; indeed, our own Constitution captures the spirit of the British jurist Blackstone’s argument that the right to self-defense is “the first law of nature” — advice Washington too often ignores when the need arises to protect its own citizens. Moreover, Israel’s military campaign in Lebanon serves the decidedly useful purpose of graphically portraying for Americans the type of war that must be waged when a nation has only its intelligence and military services in its self-defense tool box. Clearly, Israel has no credible diplomatic, public diplomacy, ideological, or economic tools to complement or moderate its use of force. This object lesson is particularly pertinent for Americans, for the bipartisan faction outlined above is very close to putting the United States in the same predicament.
No, the real question of moment is not the red-herring of Israel’s right to defend itself, but rather what possible U.S. national interest is at stake that requires America to put its security at risk on Israel’s behalf. National interests, after all, are properly defined as that limited number of issues that are life-and-death concerns for a country; they are matters of survival. Access to energy resources, freedom of the seas, the flourishing of our domestic democracy, control of borders, internal security, securing the Soviet nuclear arsenal, economic stability — these are definite national interests for contemporary America. These are all items that we must be prepared to expend time, thought, treasure, and, if necessary, lives to ensure.
Israel, realistically, does not fall into the category of a life-and-death national interest. It is, at most, a national emotional interest, and therein is the problem. In the past 30 years, and especially during the post-Cold War Clinton regime, our definition of national interest has expanded to include a lengthy list of nice-to-have but unessential ephemera, which are at the moment costing us lives and treasure. Forcing Iraq and Afghanistan to reserve parliamentary seats for women and efforts to install democracy abroad at bayonet point are just two instances of our bipartisan governing elites’ inability to differentiate national-security from national-emotional interests.
Most Americans, including myself, probably hope that Israel eventually proves itself a viable, prosperous, non-theocratic, nuclear-armed state. But it is not remotely imaginable that Israel is a national-security interest of the United States that requires the U.S. government to unquestioningly endorse, fund, and arm all Israeli actions and thereby earn the same enmity Israel earns from a billion-plus Muslims. Indeed, it is painfully clear that such support undermines several of the genuine national-security interests listed above: namely, the issues of energy, internal security, and — given the torrent of bigoted, debate-closing hate speech directed at professors Mearsheimer and Walt — the free-speech component of a flourishing domestic democracy.
So, how to explain the extraordinary power of America’s tiny but dominant pro-Israel faction? In the context of the enduring alliance between the executive branch, the Congress, AIPAC, and their media acolytes, Alexander Hamilton’s warning in Federalist No. 6 that in the pursuit of private and selfish interests men are “ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious” is a good place to start.