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Does Sheldon Adelson Hold the GOP Captive?

The fact that only a handful of prominent Republicans have spoken out in support of the Iran deal is possibly a sign of the enormous influence of Sheldon Adelson on the GOP.

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A critical congressional battle—but by no means the final one—over the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action between the P5+1 and Iran has been fought, and the powerful Israel lobby has been at least temporarily defeated. A few observations are now in order. It’s been such a tumultuous week, beginning with the drama at the American Enterprise Institute, but let me start with some weekend reading, followed by some comments about Sheldon Adelson. Tomorrow, I’ll add some thoughts about the Iran deal and the Jewish community.

Several really excellent articles were published over the past week that haven’t received sufficient notice. If you have time this weekend, they are well worth reading.

§  “The Iran Deal and the End of the Israel Lobby” by Jonathan Chait published at the New York Magazine website.

§  “AIPAC Spent Millions of Dollars to Defeat the Iran Deal. Instead, It May Have Destroyed Itself” by M.J. Rosenberg at The Nation website.

§  “America’s Jewish Establishment is Out of Touch With U.S. Jews” by Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post.

§  “What Dick Cheney Has Learned from History” by Peter Beinart at The Atlantic website.

§  “Dick Cheney Was for the Iran Deal Before He was Against It,” by J. Dana Stuster at the foreignpolicy.com website (behind a paywall).

§  “Sheldon Adelson Is Ready to Buy the Presidency,” by Jason Zengerle at the New York Magazine website.

The last article describes one particular incident that merits some serious attention. As regular readers of this blog will already know, Sheldon Adelson was infuriated when James Baker, who was listed as a foreign-policy adviser to Jeb Bush, delivered the keynote speech at this year’s annual J Street conference in March. Adelson demanded that the former Florida governor disown his father’s secretary of state. Bush declined to do so but then engaged in an ardent courtship of the casino magnate to reassure him of his “unwavering” support for Bibi Netanyahu.

…Bush is, in the end, a practical politician, and after Baker’s speech, he began trying to make amends. The candidate issued a statement repudiating Baker’s views on Israel; his campaign also hired as its official national-security adviser the hawkish John Noonan, who was blessed by Adelson and his allies. Bush even enlisted the help of his brother George W., whose strong support of Israel as president endeared him to Adelson. When the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), of which Adelson is a major funder, held its annual conference at the Venetian in April, the former president attended, presenting Adelson with a painting he’d made himself of Adelson’s Singapore casino. And in May, when Jeb appeared at a private meeting in New York with Republican donors — many of them Jewish and associates of Adelson — he told them that his most influential adviser on Israel and the Middle East was his brother. “Most people in the room thought that was very reassuring,” says one person who attended the meeting. “At the same time, they also thought, I hope he never says that in public during the general election.” That month, Jeb also made a personal pilgrimage to the Venetian to pay his respects. Today, Bush not only has been stalwart in his own opposition to the Iran nuclear deal but also, according to one veteran GOP foreign-policy hand, has worked to make sure that some prominent Republicans who do support the deal keep their support private. “If you notice, there’s been no major Republican dignitary who has come out for the Iran deal,” says that expert.

 

When I reflected on this last, rather stunning observation, I decided it was actually stunningly true. There were, of course, two major defections: Bush I’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and Bush II’s first secretary of state, Colin Powell (who, however, hasn’t been considered a Republican since he announced his support for Obama in 2008). And you have to give some credit to Council on Foreign Relations president and former Powell aide Richard Haass who, despite his scarcely concealed ambition to become secretary of state, issued a highly caveated endorsement of the deal just two weeks ago. And then there were some senior (but very retired) Republicans who have been associated with The Iran Project—notably former Trade Representative Carla Hills, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, former ambassador to China Winston Lord, and former Sens. Nancy Kassebaum, Richard Lugar, and John Warner—who came out publicly for the agreement. But that’s basically it!

Consider, for example, that Baker never said anything more that I’m aware after his J Street appearance. And, although most of Bush’s 21-member foreign-policy team fall into the aggressive nationalist or neocon wings of the party, well-known moderates, such as Bush II’s Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, Director for National Intelligence John Negroponte, and national security adviser Stephen Hadley (who had spoken positively about the negotiations and the November 2013 interim accord), have kept their mouths firmly shut. As has Condoleezza Rice. And while former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz (also a member of Bush’s foreign-policy team) co-wrote an op-ed that was highly critical of the “Parameters” of the JCPOA after they came out earlier this spring, neither of those deans of Republican diplomacy has followed up one way or another. And when you consider that this is supposed to be the most important foreign-policy agreement of the last eight years at least, how could they remain silent? Is it loyalty to the party? Loyalty to the Bush family? Or is Adelson exerting a “chilling effect” on the moderate Republican foreign-policy establishment.

Or take prominent Republican think tankers who yearn to return to power in 2016 like Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Despite having served as John McCain’s foreign-policy adviser in the 2008 campaign, he is widely seen as a centrist. For example, just last month he co-authored with CNAS’s CEO, Obama’s former Undersecretary for Defense Michele Flournoy (an endorsee of the JCPOA) a policy brief on strategy for fighting the Islamic State. He has not uttered a peep about the Iran nuclear deal that I can find. Is it because he and others like him are afraid that they’ll never see their ambitions realized if they endorse the deal? It’s difficult to think of credible alternative explanations.

So, here we have every single Republican presidential candidate and every single member of Congress lining up against the Iran agreement. That includes even North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones, a steadfast foe of neoconservative foreign-policy initiatives who, I was told by one source, had been told by Speaker Boehner that he would never get a committee chairmanship if he didn’t toe the line against the JCPOA. They are all voting against an international agreement that has been endorsed by more than 100 U.S. former ambassadors (many of them having served in senior positions under Republican presidents), 60 former top national leaders, 75 nuclear non-proliferation experts, and another 29 top U.S. nuclear scientists, as well as a plethora of former senior Israeli military and intelligence officials. Not to mention the agreement itself was signed by Washington’s three closest NATO allies. Yet, with a couple of exceptions, not a single former top or aspiring Republican foreign-policy official identified with the moderate, internationalist or Atlanticist wing of the party is willing to speak out in support of the accord.

Do Adelson and the other Likudists (and extremist Christian Zionists) in the Israel lobby have such a hold over the GOP?

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