Why Is Joe Klein Angry?

My old friend is hopping mad these days, and I have to say it looks good on him. I read the most recent to-and-fro while I was on vacation and have a few thoughts. The first is that Joe may well have supported the Iraq war reluctantly on Tim Russert's show five years ago, as Pete Wehner will not let him forget. But I remember the period in question quite well and recall very vividly Joe's prescient and passionate worries about the war - in particular a dinner we had in Provincetown around this time five years ago when he took me to task for my then-optimism and enthusiasm for the project. Like all of us, he has been buffeted this way and that by events in Mesopotamia, but using his intellectual honesty as a bludgeon against him strikes me as cheap. Joe is a patriot incensed by the glibness and callowness of so many Bushies who appear as indifferent to the immense costs of their war as to their own moral responsibility for its failures. I share his frustration and anger. Reading Charles Krauthammer accusing someone else of arrogance is really quite something.

But the latest attack on Joe is about Israel. Was this war in Iraq, in the minds of Kristol, Krauthammer, Kagan, Libby, Pohoretz et al, really, fundamentally about Israel's interests rather than America's?

I have no idea what's in the recesses of all these people's minds and hearts, and merely take them at their word (in a way they don't with others, I might add) that their stated and open obsession with the Israel question does not imply any preference for Israel's interests over America's as such. But the real trouble with asking this question is that in the neocon mind, there is almost no area in which it is even possible to conceive of America's interest being different from Israel's. Moreover, for most of the past few years, the question has been largely moot. Disarming Saddam Hussein, for example, was obviously in everyone's interests, Israel's and America's, and even his Sunni Arab neighbors' and Iran's. Trying to foster democracy in the Arab Middle East is likewise a good thing for any number of reasons, although not without short-term risks. It therefore never occurred to me that the debate over the Iraq liberation was a case for the divided loyalties question because the case stood or fell independently of any concern with Israel - and most smart Israelis actually opposed the Iraq war in any case as absurdly utopian.

The salient question, to my mind, is therefore: is there any point in future policy toward the Middle East that we can conceive of America's interests not being identical with Israel's and so set up a conflict with the neocons in which this unhappy squabble could be salient? I can see one imminent - the desire to occupy Iraq for the indefinite future and use it as a military base for regional and global power, as Krauthammer dreams of; and one looming - the prospect of a nuclear Iran. On the former, it's striking how virulently a man like Lieberman wants to keep American troops policing the Muslim Middle East in perpetuity - especially given the brutal experiences of non-Muslim foreigners occupying the West Bank and Iraq. There are non-Israel-centric reasons for doing this, of course, but they are increasingly fragile when it comes to America's national interest. Oil? Sure, but it was never that big a deal to the neocons, even though it looms large for the realists. So why on earth do we want to become a second Israel, occupying Muslim lands for ever? Israel may believe it has little choice on the West Bank. That does not apply to the US in Iraq.

On the Iran question, there can be little doubt that waging a pre-emptive war on the Persian regime is now the principal policy objective of the neocon right. To elect McCain is almost certainly to endorse a new war with Iran within the next four years. Again, this could be justified on the grounds of America's interests and not Israel's. But again, the case is getting a little harder to make. The world and the West can live, after all, with a deterred and contained nuclear Iran. Israel cannot. McCain and Lieberman hold the Podhoretz position on Iran; Obama is a few pragmatic notches away. Those notches - minor to most observers - nonetheless render Obama unacceptable to the Jewish right. Even after his AIPAC speech.

In some ways, that's all you need to know. Israel is an issue that will emerge and emerge again as this potentially metastasizing war evolves in new ways. Given the stakes, this debate is not going away. One day we may thank Joe Klein for having the balls to jump-start it.