Joe Klein on Neoconservatives and Iran

My friend and former colleague Joe Klein has made himself quite the figure of controversy over the past few weeks. First, he suggested that Jewish neoconservatives have "divided loyalties;" then he called John McCain desperate for arguing that Barack Obama is willing to lose the Iraq war in order to win the election. Then, a few days ago, he argued that McCain has surrounded himself with "Jewish neoconservatives" who want war with Iran. He's gotten a lot of pushback, including criticism from Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League.

I called Joe with a bunch of questions. He stands by his criticism of Jewish neoconservatives, and explains Iran's nuclear ambitions this way: "Given the level of threats that they've been getting from the United States, and from Israel, it's a logical thing for Iran to want nuclear weapons as a deterrent." No one can say that Joe is afraid of the arena. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

Jeffrey Goldberg: What did you mean when you used the term "divided loyalty" to describe neoconservatives?

Joe Klein:  I did not mean to imply that they were disloyal to the United States, but I think that, in some occasions and in some instances, especially this incredible push for war with Iran, they aren't thinking about the consequences.

JG: Do you think this push is coming out of the American Jewish community, or from Israeli leaders at this point?

JK: I think it's coming out of both.  But I think that if you look at, for example, the Commentary blog, if you look at Joe Lieberman - and McCain is reflecting this quite a bit in what he said, and I think until he was called out on Afghanistan a few weeks ago, he was talking about Iran almost exclusively and he was doing it in the most flagrant way. My big problems with McCain began with a simple question that I asked him at a press conference: "Why do always talk about Ahmadinejad as if he is the leader of Iran when he isn't?"  And he said, "I beg to differ with you, he is."  I said, "But you know, the Supreme Leader controls the nuclear policy and the foreign policy," and McCain said, "But Ahmadinejad is the guy who shows up at the United Nations and the average American thinks he's the leader."

JG: Go back to this divided loyalty issue.

JK: Listen, people can vote whichever way they want, for whatever reason they want.  I just don't want to see policy makers who make decisions on the basis of whether American policy will benefit Israel or not.  In some cases, you want to provide protection for Israel certainly, but you don't want to go to war with Iran.  When Jennifer Rubin or Abe Foxman calls me antisemitic, they're wrong.  I am anti-neoconservative.  I think these people are following very perversely extremist policies and I really did believe that it was time for mainstream Jews to stand up and say, "They don't represent us, they don't represent Israel."

JG: You wrote something that suggested you were skeptical about whether Iran actually wants to destroy Israel. You don't think Iran poses a mortal threat to Israel?

JK: They pick Ahmadinejad specifically because he's the guy making the wildest antisemitic  statements. I think that's being done for political purposes, to scare the shit out of my parents. It's a Broward County strategy, it's a Florida strategy. On Iran, I think that it's a love/hate relationship, since Iran and Israel are natural allies.  You know, when I was in Iran, I'd talk to people.  I was talking to one right-winger, and I said, "You know who your natural ally is?" and I was thinking the United States and he said, "Oh, yeah, Israel."  I think that my reading on the nuclear issue is, given the level of threats that they've been getting from the United States, and from Israel, it's a logical thing for Iran to want nuclear weapons as a deterrent.  I don't think they'd ever actually use it.  First of all, they don't actually have it, but if they did have it, they'd contaminate at the very least the third most holy site in Islam, and they'd kill a hell of a lot of Muslims.  So I think that they want it as a matter of deterrence and a matter of prestige. When you look at Iran's behavior, it has not been irrational.

JG:  Go back to the issue of the Jewish blogosphere, the Jewish conservative blogosphere.

JK: I just get very, very angry at them.

JG: You seem very angry at people who you specifically identify as Jewish neocons.  And you're using the word "Jewish" in ways that we haven't seen Jewish reporters and Jewish columnists use.

JK: It's about time.  I think everyone else is too afraid to do it.  Let me just make something very clear that you already know about me. I am a strong supporter of Israel.  I think Israel had a perfect right in 2002 to go into the West Bank and kick the shit out of those people who were making suicide bombs.  I think if they wanted to now go into Gaza and take out the people who were hitting Sderot, they would have a perfect right to do that.  I am not a Walt-Mearsheimer guy.  I think Jews have a perfect right to have a lobby. I do believe that there is a group of people who got involved and had a disproportionate influence on U.S. foreign policy. There were people out there in the Jewish community who saw this as a way to create a benign domino theory and eliminate all of Israel's enemies.

JG: Is that such a bad idea if it would work?

JK: But I think it is a bad idea and I think it wouldn't work.  I think it represents a really dangerous anachronistic neocolonial sensibility.  And I think it is a very, very dangerous form of extremism.  I think it's bad for Israel and it's bad for America.  And these guys have been getting a free ride.  And now these people are backing the notion of a war with Iran and not all of them, but some of them, are doing it because they believe that Iran is an existential threat to Israel.

JG: And it's not?

JK: It certainly isn't an existential threat to us and the consequences of a war with Iran would be terrible.  These were the people who were pushing for a war with Iraq and that was terrible.  In a lot of cases, I remember back in the day, back at that time, there were a lot of Jews who thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that were pointed at Israel.

JG: Do you believe that neoconservatives generally act in Israel's best interest, rather than America's?

JK: I'm not saying that they don't think it's also in America's best interest. But Israel's best interests are in their mind and they're doing things, they're encouraging policies that are violent and potentially disastrous for the American people.  There's this great book coming out called "In a Time of War," about the West Point class of 2002, and you know, you read something like this and you want throttle Doug Feith, you just want to whoop him upside the head.

JK: Wasn't there a period when you were for the war?

JG: No, I was very skeptical about the war.  You can look at the columns I wrote.  But at one point - and this ironic because both the left-wing bloggers that hate me and the right-wing bloggers that hate me always cite this - on one appearance on Tim Russert's cable show, which happened within a month before the war started, the troops were all in place, I did a really stupid thing, I started thinking aloud, "Well you know, it's going to happen, maybe we should do it," that sort of thing.  And it's the only time I ever said or wrote anything in favor of it.  My evolution on it was that very quickly I realized it was a complete disaster and for about three years there, McCain and I were on the exact same page.

JG: He was screaming against Rumsfeld.

JK: And I was carrying water for the uniformed military against Rumsfeld.  And that's when I really got close to Petraeus and the counterinsurgency folks. I thought McCain was doing the Lord's work.  I still do. Where we parted company was in the middle of 2006, when I began to believe, as you know, that we were in the middle of a civil war and that counterinsurgency wasn't appropriate.  There were a lot of other counterinsurgency experts who agreed with me, including people who were on Petraeus' staff.  And that's when I said, "We gotta get out of this thing."

JG: How do you feel about it now?

JK: You know, when I wrote that, I said, "I really hope this thing succeeds but I don't think it's gonna."  I mean, my feelings have been unmixed about the work of the American troops throughout. And I think that Petraeus had a brilliant battle plan, a good part of it was the counterinsurgency tactics, and he also had several really huge bits of luck.  One was the Anbar Awakening, and he was smart enough to take advantage of it.  I remember when I was in Iraq with him, he was shocked by it, shocked by how quickly it was moving.  You know, another thing was the fact that restoring peace to Baghdad was easier because of the ethnic cleansing in a lot of the neighborhoods, and the third thing is that the Iraqis just really got sick of violence.  They just got really sick of war.

JG: If you believed that Iran posed an existential threat to Israel, would you consider that an American national security problem?

JK:  Yes.

JG:  Because of the lessons of the Holocaust, as McCain says?

JK: Not just because of the Holocaust, but because of the possibility that you're going to have a Holocaust.  I mean, I don't want to see religious extremists launching on a democracy anywhere.  I don't want to see hundreds of thousands of Jews and Palestinians killed because of some nutcase.

JG: But you don't believe that that's going to happen.

JK: No!  No!  I think that that is a really distorted and kind of crazily extremist position.

JG: But most Israeli politicians, left and right now, seem to be believing that Iran does pose an existential threat to Israel's existence.

JK: That's because they fucked up the war in Lebanon.  The lesson here is, don't let an Air Force guy run your military

JG:  Let's go back to your response to Foxman. I guess I'm just interested in your anger.  Do you just think that a minority of Jews are giving people the impression that a majority of Jews think this way about Iran, about Iraq, about the West Bank?

JK: Exactly.  That's part of it, and also that they seem to have the power to hurt people's careers.  I was really angry about what happened with Rob Malley. You know, it's amazing to be attacked as an antisemite by extremists who I think are very dangerous.  And they seem to think, when you look at what Pete Wehner said, or what Jennifer Rubin said on their blog a couple of days ago, "I can't imagine why Time hasn't shut this guy down and fired him and blah blah blah blah blah."  That's what they want to do.  They want to stifle opinions that are different from theirs.  I'm certainly not going to back down.