Sex, Lies And Saddam
The possibility that the preoccupation with sex, lies and grand jury testimony is crippling the nation’s foreign apolicy apparatus has Jewish activists in Washington worried.
That concern mushroomed this week in the wake of President Bill Clinton’s dramatic confession of a “not appropriate” relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and with the latest eruption by Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.
On Monday, administration officials confirmed a softening in U.S. policy toward Iraq, and while Jewish leaders said there were many factors responsible for the change, most believed that the national preoccupation with the seemingly endless scandal — and the administration’s focus on defending the embattled president — were part of the Iraqi calculus.
“It’s scary. There’s a lot happening, especially in Iraq and on the terrorism front, but
there’s a real sense of paralysis,” said a longtime pro-Israel activist here.
“It’s not just that people are busy watching CNN to hear the latest dirt; there’s a feeling that important decisions aren’t getting made, that issues like the Middle East peace talks have been put on the shelf because of the president’s problems,” the activist said.
The administration is clearly distracted from critical policy concerns on both the foreign and domestic fronts, said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.
“It’s very hard to do business as usual when you’re subject to those kinds of pressures,” he said. “It’s very difficult to think creatively about our domestic and foreign policy obligations under these conditions.”
Israeli sources signaled deep anxiety about a shift in administration policy on Iraq that they said was clearly related to the deepening sex scandal.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright acknowledged on Monday what the Washington Post had reported last week — that the administration had decided not to support “intrusive inspections” by UN weapons inspectors.
The goal, administration officials said, was to avert a confrontation over spot inspections that would have complicated their efforts to convince the international body to respond strongly to Saddam’s Aug. 4 announcement that he was suspending all weapons inspections.
Jewish activists responded cautiously, but with visible anxiety.
“We are concerned, although the situation is very cloudy,” Baum said. “We are particularly concerned about the feeling that we have to yield to the concerns of other countries and violate our resolute stand against terrorism and extremism.”
Like most Jewish leaders, he said that the sex scandal may be a factor in the policy shift — but probably not the decisive factor.
“Absent Monica Lewinsky, there still might be the same reluctance to bring vigorous, bold, creative policy to bear,” he said. “It’s hard to think the scandal isn’t a factor, but we weren’t seeing that kind of leadership even before these scandals.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that “there’s been a change in tactics toward Iraq, but not a change in overall policy — which is to confront and stop Saddam.”
Foxman, who was in Washington this week for a round of meetings with congressional and administration officials, declined to say whether the sex scandal was affecting U.S. policy toward Iraq, or the all-but-dead Mideast peace process.
But other Jewish leaders warned that the scandal was already having a significant and dangerous impact.
“It’s a ‘wag-the-dog’ situation,’ ” said the leader of one major Jewish group. “If they reacted strongly to Saddam’s latest outrages, people would say it was because of the scandals. That may have been a factor in the decision not to respond with the military threat.”
Robert O. Freedman, president of Baltimore Hebrew University said “that there’s clearly the perception around the world of weakness in this administration and of being distracted by the scandals.
“It’s a significant factor in the Arab-Israeli situation, in the latest Iraqi crisis — and in the fact that Russia is selling missiles to the Greek part of Cyprus, which have the capability of hitting Southern Turkey,” Freedman said.
B’nai B’rith Convention Preview
Delegates from around the world are gathering in Israel this week for the biennial convention of B’nai B’rith—the perennially troubled Jewish communal giant whose latest reorganization plan seems to be producing results, but which has yet to reverse the decline in
membership that threatens the group’s future.
The good news for B’nai B’rith is that nine new “units” have been created in the past year, and membership among the under-40 set has increased fivefold since 1993.
But the group continues to lose members overall, largely through attrition among a membership skewed toward the upper age brackets.
B’nai B’rith officials declined to say how much membership has fallen; outside sources say the drop has been significant, although the rate of attrition seems to have slowed.
On Wednesday, the group will elect a new international president. The frontrunner and anointed successor to the current president, Tommy Baer, is Richard D. Heideman, a Washington lawyer who strongly supports the sweeping overhaul, which centralized many B’nai B’rith functions while opening a number of regional offices.
“The reorganization has been a major step forward,” he said this week. “It’s put the emphasis on programming, not structure. The establishment of 18 regions has brought hundreds of new people into key leadership positions.”
But Bernard Friedman, a South Carolina lawyer who also wants the top job, insisted that “the reorganization has taken away the power of our people to govern themselves. There’s been a centralization that has hurt.”
A third candidate, Chicago lawyer Hugh Schwartzberg, said that B’nai B’rith has to focus on innovative programming and issues that other Jewish groups aren’t looking at, such as slavery in Africa and the refusal of Congress to approve payment of this country’s United Nations arrears.
Wellstone For Prez?
It’s official, almost: the 2000 presidential race will feature a Jewish candidate. But just how serious a candidate Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) is likely to become is an open question.
This summer, Wellstone has made repeated visits to states with early primaries and caucuses; Capitol Hill sources say he is determined to run, and has been encouraged by the response of voters to his early forays.
Wellstone is clearly looking for a job; he’s two years into his second term, and has promised not to run for a third. Apparently he’s decided living in Washington is more fun than teaching at Carleton College, his only grown-up job before becoming a senator.
Could Wellstone — one of the Senate’s only confessed liberals, a Jew and a politician with a low political profile — actually win the nomination?
“You’d have to say it’s a long shot —one of those waiting-for-lightning-to-strike shots,” said American University presidential historian Alan Lichtman, author of a landmark book on predicting presidential contests. “On the other hand, if [Vice president Al] Gore gets entangled in campaign finance controversies, and Jesse Jackson, who would take votes away from Wellstone, decides not to run, then it’s conceivable.”
Lichtman pointed to the Democratic Party’s penchant for nominating relative unknowns — including successful candidates Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Will Jewish voters go for Wellstone?
“If it’s Wellstone versus Gore in the primaries, don’t put your money on Wellstone,” said a prominent Jewish Democrat. “His politics are probably OK with many Jews, but he hasn’t been a sta ndout on Israel the way Gore has been”