Twelve years after playing perhaps the pivotal role in leading the United States into its worst foreign policy disaster since at least the Vietnam War, Dick Cheney took the podium at the American Enterprise Institute Tuesday to rally opposition to the Iran deal. Before he even got started, the series of interviews he did in the run-up to the speech made him a target of the White House’s satirical eye. Cheney, after all, is the perfect foil for supporters of the Iran deal.
Despite the predictable apocalyptic rhetoric (minute three: “This agreement will give Iran the means to launch a nuclear attack against the U.S. homeland”), the speech and its delivery were pretty boring. Cheney droned on and on, making the world’s dullest case against “negotiat[ing] with evil,” as he put it back in 2003. And the sheer chutzpah of Cheney taking up the anti-deal banner became welcome fodder for the Washington media—for instance, Dana Milbank’s excellent Washington Post column on the event—especially since it took place in the AEI’s hallowed Albert Wohlstetter auditorium, named for the defense guru who helped inspire “Dr. Strangelove.” Wohlstetter fatefully first introduced the Iraqi conman, Ahmad Chalabi, to AEI’s Richard Perle, effectively launching the neocon drive to the Iraq war more than a decade later. And it was in this very hall that journalists, think-tankers, military officers, and foreign diplomats (trying to figure out where the hell the George W. Bush administration was taking the country) gathered almost weekly in the months leading up to the invasion for super-macho “black-coffee briefings” by “experts” like Perle, Michael Ledeen, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Newt Gingrich, Charles Krauthammer, as well as Chalabi himself, on Iraqi politics, the absolute necessity of de-Baathification, and how to win “the war of ideas” after 9/11. “If there was a factory for the Bush administration’s first-term foreign policy misadventures,” wrote the journalist Laura Rozen in 2009, “this was it.”
But something else happened at Cheney’s speech that bristled with symbolism: a protest! And not just any protest, but one that ended ignominiously for the hawks in the house. Since the assembled neocons failed to register any shame for their actions in Iraq, one young woman foisted it upon them in their Fortress of Solitude. The encounter was brief, but it said so much, and ended with a scholar from an influential, hawkish pro-Israel think tank on his butt, deflated and defeated, and checking his fingernails to see if he’d done any damage.
As they’re wont to do, the anti-war women’s group Code Pink had arranged for one of its members, identified in the media as Michaela Anang, a student from Boston, to attend the Cheney speech and launch a protest. As Cheney got going, the protester stood up and began shouting against “warmongering.” She asked: “Why should we be listening to him?” Then she unfurled a pink banner with red lettering that read: “Cheney / Wrong on Iraq / Wrong on Iran.” Security quickly approached and began trying to escort the woman out. That’s when things got fun.
Patrick Clawson, a scholar at the very pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, had up to that point apparently been sitting in his seat, calmly watching the former vice president lay out his oh-point-oh-one-percent doctrine. But the interruption was too much for Clawson to bear: only a few seconds after it started, C-SPAN cameras caught him on his feet, approaching the woman and grabbing at her banner—which at this point, by the way, was already obscured by the event’s security detail, who was ushering her out of the room. A brief tug-of-war over the banner ensued. Clearly incensed, Clawson, a former senior economist at the very buttoned-down International Monetary Fund, pulled fiercely as the young woman held her ground, remaining upright as Clawson leaned into his tug and finally right back into his chair after the banner slipped out of his grasp. Having lost the battle to this poised young protester, who seemed to make no effort at all, Clawson looked down at his hand, presumably to assess what injuries he may have incurred in the struggle.
Sure, you’re saying, protests happen all the time at these things. And sure, they sometimes cause scuffles. But this particular protest, this little scuffle, is so laden with metaphors that one hardly knows where to begin. But we can try. This is a question observers of a decade and a half of the U.S. foreign policy establishment might want to ask neocons: What on earth were they thinking? Or, in Clawson’s case: What on earth was he thinking? And it’s a question plenty of prominent commentators have been asking about the Israel lobby in general.
And the crashing defeat will come with the embarrassment it deserves. Clawson, though unnamed, was mocked in The Washington Post and on cable news. What’s more, Clawson is the director of research at a major Washington think tank! What sort of way is this for a purportedly important foreign policy voice to conduct themselves in public, with C-SPAN cameras around, no less? One cannot help but compare Clawson’s feeble effort to that of the once-feared flagship Israel lobby group, AIPAC, which raised tens of millions of dollars to campaign in vain against the deal but ended up unable to attract nearly enough Democratic support to kill the accord. Remember: the Washington Institute, where Clawson is the director of research, is an AIPAC spin-off. You can’t make this stuff up. “So let’s be clear, this is what the Israel lobby is reduced to,” wrote Phil Weiss, “a hissy fit against a spirited protester in the former scene of feasts and glorious abandonment.”
The end of the struggle carried a particular whiff of metaphor: “Sit down,” the cosmos seemed to command Clawson. It would be ill-advised to call the successes of the Iran deal itself and, by all indications, its passage unscathed through Congress a total victory. So much more, not least dealing with accord-killing bills like Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin’s, needs be done. But at this moment, it’s hard not to think that neoconservatives, collectively, are being told to sit down. No longer are liberal Democrats, save a few pro-Israel dead-enders like Cardin and New York’s Chuck Schumer, going along in lockstep with neoconservative hawks, fearing the appearance of weakness—a point dramatized by the coincidence of Cheney’s speech with the announcement by the four remaining undecided Democrats, three of them priority targets for AIPAC, that they support the Iran accord. On the contrary, it is neoconservatives who appear weak, flailing and failing in an attempt to best a woman of diminutive stature on their own turf. Their ideology may have captured the Republican Party, but without the Democratic Party, they are unlikely to make headway on their policies. As in the fight in Congress, where the deal is all but certain to survive, the opposition to more confrontation and more war will be too fierce and too determined.