James Baker: Not a Republican Any More

So this is an understatement, I’d say, from Peter Baker in the New York Times:

When former Secretary of State James A. Baker III accused Israel’s leader this week of undermining the chances of peace in the region, he said nothing more than the kinds of things he had said at times when he was in office a quarter-century ago.

But the instant backlash from fellow Republicans that prompted Jeb Bush, the son of Mr. Baker’s best friend, to distance himself underscored just how much their party has changed on the issue of Israel. Where past Republican leaders had their disagreements with Israel, today’s Republicans have made support for the Jewish state an inviolable litmus test for anyone aspiring to national office.

“If you’re a Republican and you hedge on your support on Israel, it’s viewed as having a flawed foreign policy,” said Ron Bonjean, a party strategist who has worked for Republican leaders in Congress. “It’s a requirement for Republicans these days to be very strong on Israel if they’re going to be taken seriously by primary voters.”

It’s really been that way at least since 2012, when Ron Paul’s arms-length attitude towards Israel drew a lot more criticism from other Republicans than his deflationary monetary policy views or his many other eccentricities. This time around, of course, the Paul family candidate for president won’t be caught dead criticizing Bibi Netanyahu.

Baker’s piece is a good reminder that this is a relatively new thing, though, and not just because James Baker, the man who supervised George W. Bush’s audacious power grab in 2000, and was Treasury Secretary for the Sainted Ronald Reagan, is now considered a pariah for saying the same things about the Middle East he has always said.

Republican presidents like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon and the first President Bush were not always seen as unequivocally supportive of Israel. For decades, throughout the Cold War especially, Republican leaders were viewed as close to anti-Communist Arab allies and the oil industry. They presided over a predominantly Protestant electoral base while Democrats assembled a more urban coalition with lopsided support from American Jews. Even when Republican presidents supported Israel and its security, they also openly quarreled with its leadership at times, much as Democratic presidents did.

Eisenhower pressured Israel to withdraw from Egypt after it sent troops into Sinai in 1956 with the support of Britain and France in an effort to secure the Suez Canal and topple the government of President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Yeah, can you imagine a Republican president now siding with the Russians to force the Israelis to cough up war gains from an Arab country?

President Ronald Reagan defied Israeli objections to sell Awacs reconnaissance planes to Saudi Arabia and supported a United Nations resolution condemning Israel after it bombed a nuclear plant under construction in Iraq without telling the United States first. His successor suspended $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel after it expanded housing settlements in occupied territories.

Keep in mind, too, that today’s Israeli government barely bothers to pay lip service to U.S. foreign policy views, and it’s that government–not Israel as a country–to which Republicans are pledging allegiance.

But here’s the most interesting, and terrifying, idea in the piece from–you guessed it–Bill Kristol:

Mr. Kristol, emailing from Israel where he was meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, described the shift as a result of broader underlying trends in American politics as the political left grows more “European” and the political right grows more “Reaganite.” He added that “the conservative belief in American exceptionalism is akin to Zionism.”

Even if you don’t think of yourself as a “Zionist,” you have to admit the Jewish experience through the centuries in and beyond the Middle East gives a pretty hearty justification for the idea this particular people needs a place where their interests come first. What’s our excuse here in America? Is anyone with the remote capacity of doing so trying to push us into any of the seas we control?

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.