By JAMES ROSEN, News & Observer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - On paper, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice run U.S. foreign policy and are responsible for the war in Iraq.
But in some circles Bush and his senior aides - white and African American Christians, one and all - stand accused of having been duped into attacking Saddam Hussein by a group of Jewish advisers whose ultimate loyalties are said to lie with Israel instead of the United States.
The claim that an influential Jewish cabal is behind the war, made in recent weeks by some mainstream politicians and columnists, has prompted countercharges of anti-Semitism by prominent Jewish organizations.
Rep. James Moran of Virginia lost his Democratic leadership post last month after telling supporters that 'the Jewish community' was responsible for the war. Former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, who is mulling a presidential run, outraged many Jews by raising the specter of divided loyalties.
Pat Buchanan, a commentator and former White House aspirant with a long history of anti-Israel statements, took the bull by the horns in typical fashion by claiming that Iraq is the first of many Arab and Islamic governments targeted for overthrow.
'Who would benefit from a war of civilizations between the West and Islam?' Buchanan asked in a recent column. 'Answer: one nation, one leader, one party. Israel, Sharon, Likud.'
Other columnists, from Robert Novak to Georgie Anne Geyer, have made similar claims, while left-wing protesters and liberal magazines such as The Nation and the New Republic have followed suit.
A sign at an anti-war demonstration in San Francisco last month read: 'I want YOU to die for Israel. Israel sings 'Onward Christian Soldiers.''
The assertions that the Bush administration is waging war for the sake of Israel thanks to the influence of Jewish advisers created a buzz this week (3/31-4/2) at the annual convention of the American-Israeli Political Action Committee, the country's most powerful pro-Israel lobby group.
'We know that in times of conflict when there are differences of opinion, anti-Semitic feelings come out,' said Ralph Green, a delegate from Louisville, Ky. 'This has been shown throughout history. We know there are people in this country who don't like Jews, who don't like Israel and who are going to blame us.'
Quipped Gerald Chester, a Minneapolis delegate: 'Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld are all Protestants. Is there a Protestant cabal?' Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Los Angeles said the United States has never sent soldiers to defend Israel even when it was under direct attack in five wars.
'It's just outright anti-Semitic jargon,' Muskin said. 'America does not go to war because of Israel.'
While it has simmered largely beneath the surface of public debate in the 24/7 media coverage of the war, the nasty dispute over the role of Israel and its supporters in the war goes beyond a few partisans.
The dispute reveals deep divisions over the war among American Jews, many of whom are liberal Democrats who have opposed past U.S. military action.
And the dispute shows splits between traditional Republican conservatives who have long advocated U.S. disengagement from the world and 'neoconservatives' who first came to power under President Reagan - and are newly ascendant under Bush, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
'The idea that this war is about Israel is persistent and more widely held than you may think,' New York Times columnist Bill Keller wrote. 'It has interesting ripples in our domestic politics. It has, like many dubious theories, sprouted from a seed of truth. Israel is part of the story.'
At the center of the controversy are a handful of Jewish men: Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Elliott Abrams, David Wurmser.
All the men are longtime leaders of the neoconservative movement, which was founded on the idea, championed by Reagan, that the United States had to confront the Soviet Union aggressively - and in recent years has changed its target to radical Islam.
All of the key figures hold senior positions in the Bush administration - at the Pentagon, in the State Department, at the White House and, in Perle's case, on the Defense Policy Board, a key group of Pentagon advisers.
Most of the controversial Bush aides are strong supporters of Israel's conservative Likud Party, now headed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and several have past ties either to Likud or to Israeli companies.
Perle, in fact, resigned as chairman of the Defense Policy Board last week - though he remained a member - after published claims by New Yorker magazine reporter Seymour Hersch, himself a Jew, that a venture capital firm in which Perle is managing partner might profit from the war.
True to his conservative roots, Bush campaigned for president on a foreign platform of quasi-isolationism, arguing that the United States could not police the world and criticizing President Clinton for foreign interventions from Haiti and Somalia to Kosovo. But then came the Sept. 11 attacks, and Bush's tune changed. By January 2002, he was grouping Iraq, Iran and North Korea in the 'axis of evil,' and six months later he was talking about regime change in Baghdad.
In a speech in February, Bush hailed the virtues of spreading democracy in the Middle East.
'A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions,' Bush said. Saddam's overthrow, he said, will give other regimes 'a clear warning that support for terror will not be tolerated.'
Bush's talk of bringing democracy to the Middle East on a bayonet's edge and making a show of force to other Arab governments echoed longtime themes of both the Likud Party in Israel and some of its neoconservative supporters in the United States.
In 1996, as Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepared to take office, eight Jewish neoconservative leaders sent him a six-page memo outlining an aggressive vision of government. At the top of their list was overthrowing Saddam and replacing him with a monarch under the control of Jordan.
The neoconservatives sketched out a kind of domino theory in which the governments of Syria and other Arab countries might later fall or be replaced in the wake of Saddam's ouster. They urged Netanyahu to spurn the Oslo peace accords and to stop making concessions to the Palestinians.
Lead writer of the memo was Perle. Other signatories were Feith, now undersecretary of defense, and Wurmser, a senior adviser to John Bolton, undersecretary of state.
Fred Donner, a professor of Near Eastern history at the University of Chicago, said he was struck by the similarities between the ideas in the memo and ideas now at the forefront of Bush's foreign policy.
Donner noted that the memo urged Netanyahu to move toward 're-establishing the principle of pre-emption rather than retaliation alone.' Pre-emption - confronting perceived threats to the United States before they attack instead of afterward - appeared last year as the centerpiece of a new strategic defense policy advanced by Bush.
Donner said that the ideological similarities, along with the senior posts in the Bush administration now held by some of the memo's authors, cannot be overlooked.
'There is a natural line of connection here,' Donner said. 'These people have prevailed upon other people in the administration that this is the policy we should follow in the Middle East.'
Donner denied that he holds anything against Jews, or against Israel for that matter.
'I wouldn't feel any differently if this memo were drafted for the government of Sri Lanka,' he said. 'It has nothing specifically to do with the fact that this is Israel and with the fact that these people are Jewish. It has to do with the fact that a policy crafted with the interests of a foreign government in mind is now being pursued by our own government, even though this policy is not entirely in our best interests as a country.'
James Colbert, one of the eight men who signed the 1996 memo to Netanyahu, is now communications director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Studies, an influential neoconservative think tank in Washington.
Colbert finds it laughable that the document is being pointed to as proof that pro-Likud Jewish advisers have led the United States into war.
'The document, as I recall, was a kind of pie-in-the-sky dreaming about what the policy for a future Israeli government should be, simply from the perspective of those sitting over here,' Colbert said Tuesday. 'I don't believe it was any kind of operative plan. Certainly, it's not even directed at the U.S. government.'
Robert Loewenberg, another memo signatory, founded and runs the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, another prominent neoconservative hub in Washington.
'The whole point of the document was indeed to roll back those ÃÂArabÃÂ regimes,' Loewenberg said. 'That's the main thing that people talk about. But what they seem to overlook is that it wasn't the United States that was supposed to do it - it was Israel that was supposed to do it!'
Loewenberg scoffs that 'it's being interpreted as the United States being led around the nose by conservative Jews.' If he and other neoconservatives had so much clout with Bush, Loewenberg said, they would convince him to cut off U.S. aid to Israel, which he believes destroys Israel's self-reliance and gives the United States too much control over Israeli policy.
Michael Lerner, a well-known progressive rabbi who believes that both Sharon and Palestine Liberation Organization founder Yasser Arafat should be tried for war crimes, agrees that Perle, Feith and other neoconservatives exert large sway in the Bush administration.
'They represent an elite in the Jewish world that has influence in the most conservative circles of the United States,' Lerner said. 'But their influence comes from their ability to come up with clever scenarios to fulfill the needs of the American business elite, not because the American business elite has suddenly said, 'We're not interested in capital - what we're interested in is the Jews!''