On foreign policy, the leading Republican presidential contenders fall into basically two camps: hawkish optimists and hawkish pessimists. The hawkish optimists are Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. They’re willing to spend money, sell arms and even send troops in an attempt to transform America’s enemies into pro-Western democracies. The hawkish pessimists are Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. They’re skeptical of getting entangled in the internal affairs of far-off countries. They want to bomb America’s enemies to smithereens and then get the hell out.
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You can see the difference on the Iraq War, which Rubio says made America “safer and better off” but which Cruz calls a mistake and Trump says he opposed from the start. You can see it on Libya, where Cruz has slammed Rubio for supporting the war that toppled Muammer Gadhafi and left the country in chaos. And you can see it on Syria’s civil war, where Rubio and Jeb Bush have supported arming anti-Bashar Assad “moderates” while Cruz says “we have no dog in the fight.”
From a Jewish perspective, what’s interesting about this debate is that it doesn’t only divide the GOP field. It divides Republican Jewish elites from their brethren in Israel.
Republican Jewish hawks, both donors and foreign policy experts, generally distrust Trump and Cruz. They don’t think Trump knows what he’s talking about. And they suspect that Cruz will say whatever it takes to win. “He’s basically picking foreign-policy positions not based on strategic necessity or internal coherence but basically designed for political advantage,” said the Council on Foreign Relations’ Max Boot recently.
But the distrust also has an ideological tinge. Republican Jewish elites tend to be cultural optimists. They believe immigrants to the United States can embrace democratic values, as did their own parents and grandparents. And as people with strong historical ties to Europe, they are acutely aware of America’s success in defending and promoting democracy there. They also fear isolationism, which in the United States has often been peddled by anti-Semites like Charles Lindbergh and Pat Buchanan.
All this helps explain why many leading Jewish Republicans are nervous about Trump and Cruz. For one thing, Trump and Cruz are more hostile to immigration than Rubio and Bush, in part because they are more pessimistic that America’s new immigrants can embrace American values. Trump and Cruz also express a skepticism of foreign entanglements that, for some GOP Jews, has uncomfortable echoes. Cruz, for instance, regularly slams “neo-cons” who “have advocated military adventurism that has had the effect of benefiting radical Islamic terrorists” in Iraq and Libya. The term “neo-cons,” responded former George W. Bush official Elliot Abrams, “means warmonger, if not warmongering Jewish advisers.” Another former Bush administration Defense Department official told National Review that “neo-cons” is “a dog whistle,” a veiled reference to Jews who want to drag America to war.
But ironically, the same cultural pessimism that alienates many Jewish hawks in the United States aligns Trump and Cruz with Jewish hawks in Israel. Israeli hawks generally prize stability. They want America to undergird the existing Middle Eastern order, protecting moderate Arab regimes like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt while keeping Iran in check. But they don’t want the United States to encourage political revolutions that could breed chaos or extremism.
They’re also highly dubious that democracy is possible, or even desirable, in the Middle East. According to Danny Ayalon, Israel’s Ambassador in Washington in 2003, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned George W. Bush not to try to transform Iraq because “in terms of culture and tradition, the Arab world is not built for democratization.” Benjamin Netanyahu was reportedly appalled that the Obama administration helped push Hosni Mubarak out of power in Egypt. So is Ted Cruz, who calls Mubarak “a leader who had been a reliable ally to the United States and a reliable ally in the fight against radical Islamic terrorist.” Rubio, on the other hand, like many Jewish “neoconservatives,” celebrated Mubarak’s ousting.
The entire Arab Spring, notes Joshua Muravchik in Commentary, “precipitated a sharp split between [American] neoconservatives and hard-headed Israeli analysts who had long been their allies and friends. While neocons saw democratization as a balm to soothe the fevered brow of the Arab world, Israeli strategists (with the notable exception of Natan Sharansky) thought this utterly naive.” In this split, Trump and Cruz are on the Israeli side.
It’s a useful reminder that “neo-conservatism,” the brand of hawkishness appealing to many Republican Jews, comes out of the particular experience of being Jewish in the United States. American Jewish conservatives, like American Jewish liberals, tend to see the U.S. as a country built upon universal ideals of democracy and freedom that people anywhere can embrace. The claim that only people of a certain ethnicity or religion can embrace those ideals scares them because they know such logic was once used to bar Jewish immigration. Conservative American Christians, by contrast, especially the ones flocking to Trump and Cruz, are more likely to see American democracy as dependent upon America’s particular religious and ethnic character. They’re more skeptical that Muslims, either in the United States or abroad, can embrace democratic values. So are hawkish Israelis like Netanyahu, who also see democracy as the product of a particular Western heritage that most Middle Easterners don’t share.
It’s often said that Netanyahu would fit comfortably into the Republican Party. The flip side is that Cruz and Trump, the very candidates American Jewish Republicans distrust, would fit most comfortably into Likud.