McCain and Obama at AIPAC

Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, the presumptive Republican and Democratic nominees for President, addressed AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) this week. Always a depressing spectacle, this year’s conference, at least, provided some interesting insights into the differences that divide the candidates, and the way they played out with the AIPAC audience.

First up was McCain, whose hawkish denunciations of Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah, and his dire warnings of threats against the state of Israel were well-received. So, too, was his mockery of Barack Obama’s call for a tough, but diplomacy-based, foreign policy. McCain barely addressed the failing peace process, focusing more than half his remarks on the Iranian threat to Israel.

There can be no doubt that Iran has been emboldened and has been defiant of the international community’s efforts to halt its nuclear program and rein in its support for terrorism. What McCain promoted, however, was long on incitement and short on analysis. He failed to answer the question: how, exactly, did the U.S. get into the current mess in which it finds itself?

A flashback to McCain’s April 2002 appearance before AIPAC reveals clues as to why the current situation is so dangerous, and why the Senator may be hesitant to change course.

Back then, this is what McCain told AIPAC:

"If we are serious about the values we in America and Israel live by…we must work to spread our values in the Middle East, first by opposing tyranny in the Arab world. The celebration of freedom in the streets of liberated Baghdad will serve as a counterpoint to the state-directed Arab media’s distortion of the Palestinian conflict. It will be a reminder to other Arab tyrants that the United States is a natural ally of Arab people who aspire to freedom. …bringing liberty’s blessings to Arab peoples will do much more to improve their lives than will their jihad against Israel."

What comes through in this April 2002 speech was that, as an advocate of the policies of the Bush Administration, McCain:

  • embraced the neo-conservative fantasy that led the U.S. into a reckless war in Iraq that they believed would spark a democratic upheaval throughout the Middle East;
  • insulted Arab leaders and states that have long cooperated with the U.S; and
  • placed blame for the failure of the peace process solely on the Palestinians and Arab leaders and, therefore, like Bush, supported the abandonment of peace negotiations and encouraged Israel’s unilateral goals of separation and the construction of the "wall."

What McCain missed getting right then, and still misses now, is that it was precisely the war in Iraq that emboldened Iran, creating the space for its expansion of its regional role. The war in Iraq also roiled the region, deepening anti-American sentiment and putting at risk the very Arab allies whose assistance the U.S. needs in confronting Iran. And U.S. neglect of the peace process, and the imposition of a victor-vanquished approach to its dealings with the Palestinians and Lebanese, contributed to destabilizing and polarizing both peoples, creating the circumstances for Hamas and Hizbullah to feed off their people’s anger.

By continuing to justify and embrace this failed policy, McCain can only promise more war, more polarization, and more extremism. In the end, his formula for the future is more of what was tried and tested in the past and found wanting.

Nevertheless, the AIPAC audience cheered.

Next up was Barack Obama, whose speech generated interest because hard-line supporters of Israel have been critical of him. He is, to them, an unknown commodity with questionable ties. Progressive Jews (and Arab Americans) have, on the other hand, found Obama appealing both because of his messages of hope and change and, specifically, because of comments he has made indicating openness to a more nuanced discussion of Arab-Israeli peace-making. For example, there were his comments to Jewish leaders in Cleveland on February 24th, where he rejected identifying being pro-Israel with "adopting an unwaveringly pro-Likud view of Israel," and his statement to a Jewish reporter that "in order to make progress in Arab-Israeli talks…both sides should be held accountable to previous agreements."

For the most part, Obama’s AIPAC speech pushed all the "right" buttons for his audience. It included a personal narrative that connected his story with that of the Jewish people, and the larger narrative of the historic bonds between the African American and American Jewish communities.

In addressing matters of foreign policy, Obama did his fair share of genuflecting, which is expected before an AIPAC audience that insists upon such displays. But, on the whole, Obama’s speech was less troubling than many others delivered before the group.

He was tough on Iran, but correctly took on John McCain’s refusal to recognize the central role the debacle in Iraq has played in destabilizing the Middle East, and emboldening Iran and extremism. He repeatedly emphasized the need for principled diplomacy as the way to move forward. He contrasted his commitment to peace-making with the neglect of the Bush Administration by pledging active involvement in the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel and Syria, and noting the responsibilities of all parties in the Middle East to contribute to that process. He specifically called on Israel to "take appropriate steps – consistent with its security – to ease the freedom of movement for Palestinians, improve economic conditions in the West Bank, and to refrain from building new settlements." He urged support for Palestinian President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, and emphasized that "Palestinians need a state that is contiguous and cohesive, and that allows them to prosper."

Obama also included a deeply troubling reference to Jerusalem which he said "will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided." An Obama advisor, however, later clarified, insisting that there was nothing in this position that should be seen as prejudicing the final status of Jerusalem or precluding the Palestinians from also having their capital in a "shared" city.

Better than McCain? Yes. And clearly more thoughtful than his predecessors. Still, the AIPAC audience cheered, revealing a strange ambivalence that exists even among members of this hard-line of this pro-Israel group: cheering McCain’s support for more war in Iraq and Obama’s call for and end to the war; and McCain’s mockery of diplomacy and Obama’s emphasis on negotiations. Strange and depressing, but still interesting.