In the Arena

Fear Itself

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Zbigniew Brzezinski has a typically strong piece in the Washington Post today about the damage done by the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror.”

It is especially interesting to read it sitting here in Jerusalem, where the terrorist threat is real and constant. My immediate, uncomfortable thought: It is no accident that many of those most anxious to posit the struggle against Al-Qaeda as a “war,” even a “World War” were neoconservatives with close ties to the Israeli government, especially when it was run by the right-wing Likud party. People like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith–you know the names–seemed particularly anxious to conflate the very real threat facing Israel with the much less existential (but still real) threat facing the United States. (Unlike their Israeli friends, whom they are constantly trying to impress with their faux-macho, anti-Arab posturing, none of these boychiks ever put on a uniform.) This is not a new thought, but it bears repeating…especially by Jews. Indeed, this is an issue that American Jews are going to have to face head-on sooner or later: how the neoconservatives helped create a policy that has had the unintended consequence of making the state of Israel less secure. (Their cheeleading for the poorly-planned war against Hezbollah last summer shouldn’t be forgotten either, especially when prominent Israeli politicians like Tzipi Lifni and Avi Dichter were–wisely–counseling caution in Ehud Olmert’s war cabinet.)

I interviewed a ranking Israeli official two days ago and asked, “How has the war in Iraq affected Israel’s security?” The official gave me a knowing smile and switched the subject. Other Israelis are less diplomatic: “Your neo-conservatives have brought the forces of Islamic extremism to our country on three borders,” a Likudnik-!-said to me, meaning the empowerment of Hizbollah and Hamas in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, a result of the Bush Administration’s lethal clumsiness in the region.

One aspect Brzezinski doesn’t deal with is the domestic cynicism of the “The War on Terror.” I am quite sure that Bush and Rove–reverse Roosevelts–will be remembered in history for their political use of fearmongering as a bludgeon against Democrats. They had nothing to sell by fear itself. John Kerry was right in 2004: the battle against Al-Qaeda, Hizbollah and other terrorist threats is not a war, but an intelligence, special ops and–yes–an international police action.

There will, no doubt, be other terrorist attacks on the United States. One may even approach or exceed the horror of 9/11. The threat is real, and it must be confronted. But by bloating the threat of Islamist extremism, Bush has bloated the importance of Islamic extremists. As a Jew, I am embarrassed by the role that so many prominent Jews have had in empowering the enemy.

Update: Several readers have suggested that I write a column about this for the magazine. Actually, criticism of the neocons has been a constant theme in my columns–both the Weekly Standard and the Wall St. Journal Editorial Page have attacked me for it. Here is one column I wrote a few weeks before the war started, and here’s another from the week the Abu Ghraib crisis broke