Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category

‘A Sunni-Jewish Alliance’

Friday, June 12th, 2009

On my way back from Washington, D.C., yesterday, sitting in a Subway in Breezewood, Pa., I read this must-read article by Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic. And when I say read, by the way, I mean actually — sitting at a bench overlooking the gas pumps, holding the paper in my hands, trying unsuccessfully to avoid staining it with mustard from my turkey sub.

The headline: “How Iran Could Save the Middle East.”

That’s the worst part of the story, though, because it’s only about Iran in the negative sense. His thesis is this: the fall of Iraq and corresponding rise of Iran, by unleashing a tsunami of Shia political power in the Middle East, has created yet another moment of unprecedented opportunity in the Middle east — for Sunni’s (in the West Bank, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia) to unite with Jews against the common threat.

His meta point is that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is more than just a cliche in the Middle East. Westerners don’t comprehend the depths of Sunni-Shiite hatred, or, more importantly, the raw fear that the rise of Iran has created among Sunnis in the Middle East. “The Shia are apostates,” Goldberg quotes a Palestinian as saying. “…They want to use Iraq as a base to convert Sunnis.”

Jews, as bad as they might be in the eyes of Palestinians, are not trying to steal their adherents.

As Goldberg writes:

A Palestinian cannot become Persian, but he can become Shia. And this, to a Sunni Muslim—even to a wine-drinking, pork-eating Marxist Sunni Muslim—is a reprehensible idea.

Here’s the nut:

The remarkable thing about this moment in the Middle East is that Arab leaders speak about Iran more critically than even Netanyahu does. In March, Morocco broke diplomatic relations with Iran over what it claimed were attempts by Iranian Shia to convert Moroccan Sunnis…

Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, recently told me that he has sensed an oncoming revolution in Sunni thinking. “For the first time, the majority of the Arab world thinks that Iran is the real danger, not Israel. Seventy percent of the Arabs are Sunnis. The Sunnis look upon us, whether they say it or not, not as a problem but as a hope.”

Peres may be overstating, but moderate Arab leaders would obviously like a Sunni-Jewish alliance: Israeli compromise—an agreement, for instance, to freeze settlement growth on the West Bank—would prove to their pro-Palestinian constituents that Arab states, and not Iran, are guarantors of Palestinian interests, and it would allow them to deepen their subterranean military-intelligence connections with Israel on the Iran question. Such an alliance has even more obvious strategic advantages for Israel: Netanyahu has said he will lobby Europe, China, and Russia on the necessity for strong action to stop the Iranian nuclear program. His case would be strengthened immeasurably if he could make these arguments in concert with Arab leaders.

This puts Obama’s — and Hillary Clinton’s — comments about settlements in a very powerful context: It’s not about peace, in the ephemeral sense, but about a concrete alliance between Jews and Sunni’s united against an Iranian/Shiite threat. And about Netanyahu’s own powers of diplomatic persuasion on the Iranian nuclear issue.

The article goes on to quote David Makovsky, former executive editor of the Jerusalem Post and author of a new book on the peace process:

“There is a convergence of interests between the Arabs and Israelis on Iran. As such, this moment is a gift that shouldn’t be wasted,” Makovsky says. “The two sides need to put their differences in perspective to address the common challenge.”

Makovsky suggests that settlements may be too thorny of an issue right now; instead, the two sides could move to another issue: demarcating the borders of the eventual Palestinian state.

“This is not like the issues of Jerusalem and the status of refugees or security arrangements,” [Makovsky] said. “Both sides have already come very close on the West Bank land issue.” The former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, before leaving office, suggested that the future state of Palestine be built on 93 percent of the West Bank, and receive additional territory from Israel in a land swap.

I really love this idea. It feels fresh, and much less fraught, than settlements. If borders are drawn, it would make much of the on-the-ground settlement questions — who can build an addition in which city — totally moot.

And it would help build trust — the bedrock of any alliance, especially a Sunni-Jewish one.

Obama: ‘Unshakable Commitment to the Security of Israel’

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

At the end of the Obama rally Sunday, I approached Ambassador Dennis Ross and introduced myself. I mentioned that I’d met Sen. Obama one week before the Ohio primary in the same venue — Obama had come to the Landerhaven banquet hall to speak directly to the Cleveland Jewish community. I told Ross I was extremely impressed with the extent of Obama’s Jewish outreach.

Ross told me he had read the transcript of Obama’s remarks at that event, and been blown away. Obama, he said, demonstrated deep familiarity with and uncommon knowledge about wide-ranging, complex issues relating to Israel and the Middle East.

I had returned from that session and sent out an email to family and friends, so that they could gain a better understanding of where Obama stands on Israel. That email went viral. I was receiving responses from people across the country, many of whom I didn’t know, literally months after the Ohio primary.

The vast majority of the responses were overwhelmingly positive, like this one, which I received from a friend of mine in Iowa, a bestselling fiction writer:

Thanks for that great email. You’re preaching to the choir here (we’re serious supporters), but I sent it on to others.
I forgot about you guys in OHIO! Get out the vote.
Man, there hasn’t been a political leader like him in my lifetime. Let us pray that he stays safe. …
Keep up the good work, and stay in touch.

And this one, from a friend of mine in New Jersey:

I just finished reading your absolutely wonderful report. You should be proud of this work. I have forwarded it to several friends and family – including some Bush supporters I know who have speculated that Obama would be weak on Israel policy.

I also received some ugly, angry responses, often anonymous, sometimes personal attacks, like this:

You want to prove you are a liberal? You want CHANGE? Change yourselves first. Go ladle out food in a soup kitchen, or take in a foster child in your home, or go teach as a volunteer in school with a large Afro-American student body, or give of your time to Big Brothers or Big Sisters. Put aside your golf club or tennis racquet, don’t play Bridge, do something for the downtrodden.

But by and large, the response was inspiring, and encouraging. Like this, from someone I’d never met, for example:

I am in receipt of your valuable and much -needed report on the meeting you attended with Barak Obama. I hope that it will receive wide circulation and help to disabuse many of my well-intentioned Jewish friends of their mistaken ideas.

Although I am and have been a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton, I have been very distressed by the ugly and clearly racist attacks against Obama and the misrepresentations of his history and positions regarding Israel and Jews.

For some time, I’ve been planning on posting my account of that February meeting with Obama on this blog. Then, Saturday night, a good friend of mine — a reluctant Obama supporter — told me he’d seen a Republican Jewish Committee ad in the Cleveland Jewish News about Obama’s supposed ties to anti-Semitic advisors. My friend wanted to know how Obama would rebut the charge.

That’s when I realized that some might benefit from seeing my account again.

So without further ado, I’ve posted an edited version below. If you know anyone with questions about Obama and his positions on Israel, or the false smears that have been aimed at him, please feel free to direct them here:

Obama took the podium, and … was greeted with a warm ovation. He … spoke generally about issues of importance to him, including health care, the need for an energy policy that “not only creates jobs and secures our planet but also stops sending billions of dollars to dictators and effectively leads us to fund both sides of the war on terror,” and a change in foreign policy, beginning with ending the war in Iraq.

“These changes are founded in a view of the world that I believe is deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition,” Obama said, “That all of us have a responsibility to do our part to repair the world. That we can take care of one another and build strong communities grounded in faith and family. That repairing the world is a task that each of us is called upon to take up every single day.”

He then said that he will carry with him to the White House “an unshakable commitment to the security of Israel and the friendship between the United States and Israel. The US-Israel relationship is rooted in shared interests, shared values, shared history and in deep friendship among our people …I will work tirelessly as president to uphold and enhance the friendship between the two countries.”

Obama next described a trip he took to Israel 2 years ago, and his travels around the country, saying it “left a lasting impression on me.”

“Seeing the terrain,” Obama said, “experiencing the powerful contrast between the beautiful holy land that faces the constant threat of deadly violence. The people of Israel showed their courage and commitment to democracy everyday that they board a bus or kiss their children goodbye or argue about politics in a local café.

“And I know how much Israelis crave peace. I know that Prime Minister Olmert was elected with a mandate to pursue it. I pledge to make every effort to help Israel achieve that peace. I will strengthen Israel’s security and strengthen Palestinian partners who support that vision and personally work for two states that can live side-by-side in peace and security, with Israel’s status as a Jewish state ensured, so that Israelis and Palestinians can pursue their dreams.”

He continued: “I also expect to work on behalf of peace with the full knowledge that Israel still has bitter enemies who are intent on its destruction. We see their intentions every time a suicide bomber strikes, we saw their intentions with the Katusha rockets that Hezbollah rained down on Israel from Lebanon in 2006, and we see it today in the Kassams that Hamas fires into Israel every single day from as close as Gaza or as far as Tehran. The defense cooperation between the United States and Israel has been a model of success and I believe it can be deepened and strengthened.”

He went on to say that “the gravest threat … to Israel today I believe is from Iran,” noting that the “radical regime” is continuing to pursue nuclear weapons.

“President Ahmadinejad continues his offensive denials of the Holocaust and disturbing denunciations of Israel,” Obama said. “He recently referred to Israel as a deadly microbe and a savage animal. Threats of Israel’s destruction cannot be dismissed as rhetoric. The threat from Iran is real and my goal as President would be to eliminate that threat.

“Ending the war in Iraq, I believe, will be an important first step in achieving that goal because it will increase our flexibility and credibility when we deal with Iran. Make no mistake: I believe that Iran has been the biggest strategic beneficiary of this war and I intend to change that.

“My approach to Iran,” he continued, “will be aggressive diplomacy. I will not take any military options off the table. But I also believe that under this administration we have seen the threat grow worse and I intend to change that course. The time I believe has come to talk directly to the Iranians and to lay out our clear terms: their end of pursuit of nuclear weapons, an end of their support of terrorism, and an end of their threat to Israel and other countries in the region.

“To prepare this goal I believe that we need to present incentives, carrots, like the prospect of better relations and integration into the national community, as well as disincentives like the prospect of increased sanctions. I would seek these sanctions through the United Nations and encourage our friends in Europe and the Gulf to use their economic leverage against Iran outside of the UN, and I believe we will be in a stronger position to achieve these tough international sanctions if the United States has shown itself to be willing to come to the table.”

He added: “We have not pursued the kind of aggressive and direct diplomacy that could yield results to both Israel and the United States. The current policy of not talking is not working.”

All told, he spoke for about ten minutes. Then, he opened the floor to questions …

[A] questioner asked Obama about emails that have circulated, suggesting he’s Muslim.

Obama called the emails “virulent;” they started early in the campaign, he said, and have come out in waves, “magically appear[ing]” in states before primaries and caucuses. They contend that Obama is Muslim, that he went to a madrassa, that he used a Koran to swear himself into the Senate, that he doesn’t pledge allegiance to the flag.

“If anyone is still puzzled about the facts, in fact I have never been a Muslim,” he said. “We had to send CNN to look at the school that I attended in Indonesia where kids were wearing short pants and listening to iPods to indicate that this was not a madrassa but was a secular school in Indonesia.”

The next questioner asked about the reports that Obama’s advisors included Zbigniew Brzezinski (Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor) and several others perceived as anti-Israel.

“There is a spectrum of views in terms of how the US and Israel should be interacting,” Obama said. “It has evolved over time.” Obama said that when Brzezinksi was national security advisor, he would not have been considered outside the mainstream of that spectrum. Noting that Brzezinski “is now considered by many in the Jewish community anathema,” Obama said: “I know Brzezinski. He’s not one of my key advisors. I’ve had lunch with him once, I’ve exchanged emails with him maybe 3 times. He came to Iowa to introduce me for a speech on Iraq. He and I agree that Iraq was an enormous strategic blunder and that input from him has been useful in assessing Iraq, as well as Pakistan … I do not share his views with respect to Israel. I have said so clearly and unequivocally.”

He went on to say that the other advisors who he’s been criticized for having on his staff are former members of the Clinton administration. He mentioned Tony Lake, the former national security adviser, and Susan Rice, the former assistant secretary of state for African Affairs.

“These are people who strongly believe in Israel’s right to exist. Strongly believe in a two-state solution. Strongly believe that the Palestinians have been irresponsible and have been strongly critical of them. [They] share my view that Israel has to remain a Jewish state, that the US has a special relationship with the Jewish state.”

He then departed, a bit, from the topic of his advisors, and spoke more generally. “This is where I get to be honest and I hope I’m not out of school here,” he said. “I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likkud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel, and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we’re not going to make progress.”

He took issue with commentators who suggest that talk of anything less than “crushing the opposition” is “being soft or anti-Israel.”

“[If] we are never ever going to ask any difficult questions about how we move peace forward or secure Israel” in ways that are “non-military,” he said, then “I think we’re going to have problems moving forward. And that I think is something we have to have an honest dialogue about.”

He pointed out that none of the emails about his advisors mention people on the other side such as Chicago businessman, global nonprofit activist, and philanthropist Lester Crown, a member of Obama’s national finance committee, “considered about as hawkish and tough when it comes to Israel as anybody in the country.”

“So, there’s got to be some balance here,” he said. “I’ve got a range of perspectives and a range of advisors who approach this issue. They would all be considered well within the mainstream of that bi-partisan consensus … in terms of being pro-Israel. There’s never been any of my advisors who questioned the need for us to provide Israel with security, with military aid, with economic aid. That there has to be a two-state solution, that Israel has to remain a Jewish state. None of my advisors would suggest that, so I think it’s important to keep some of these things in perspective. I understand people’s concern with Brzezinski given how much offense the Israel lobby has raised, but he’s not one of my central advisers.”

The next question was sort of a follow-up. “Given your range of advisors,” the questioner asked, “how would you approach foreign policy decision-making on Israel and the Middle East?”

“Well here’s my starting orientation,” Obama said: “A) Israel’s security is sacrosanct, is non-negotiable. That’s point number one. Point number two is that the status quo I believe is unsustainable over time. So we’re going to have to make a shift from the current deadlock that we’re in. Number three, that Israel has to remain a Jewish state and what I believe that means is that any negotiated peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is going to have to involve the Palestinians relinquishing the right of return as it has been understood in the past. And that doesn’t mean that there may not be conversations about compensation issues. It also means the Israelis will have to figure out how do we work with a legitimate Palestinian government to create a Palestinian state that is sustainable. It’s going to have to be contiguous, it’s going to have to work – it’s going to have to function in some way.

“That’s in Israel’s interest by the way. If you have a balkanized unsustainable state, it will break down and we will be back in the same boat. So those are the starting points of my orientation. My goal then would be to solicit as many practical opinions as possible in terms of how we’re going to move forward on an improvement of relations and a sustainable peace. The question that I will be askingany advisor is how does it achieve the goal of Israel’s security and how does it achieve the goal of sustainability over the long term and I want practical, hardheaded, unromantic advice about how we’re goingto achieve that.”

He added that when he was in Ramallah, he told the Palestinians “you can’t fault Israel for being concerned about any peace agreement if the Palestinian state or Palestinian Authority or Palestinian leadership does not seem to be able to follow through on its commitments.”

With respect to negotiations, he said, “you sit down and talk, but you have to suspend trust until you can see that the Palestinian side can follow through and that’s a position that I have consistently taken and the one I will take with me to the White House.”

“One of the things that struck me when I went to Israel,” Obama continued, “was how much more open the debate was around these issues in Israel than they are sometimes here in the United States. It’s very ironic. I sat down with the head of Israeli security forces and his view of the Palestinians was incredibly nuanced because he’s dealing with these people every day. There’s good and there’s bad, and he was willing to say sometimes we make mistakes and we made this miscalculation and if we are just pressing down on these folks constantly without giving them some prospects for hope, that’s not good for our security situation. There was a very honest, thoughtful debate taking place inside Israel. All of you, I’m sure, have experienced this when you travel there. Understandably, because of the pressure that Israel is under, I think the US pro-Israel community is sometimes a little more protective or concerned about opening up that conversation. But all I’m saying though is that, ultimately, should be our goal — to have that same clear-eyed view about how we approach these issues.”

The next questioner asked what Obama would say to the Jewish community about George Bush and his support for Israel.

Obama noted straight off that the Jewish community is “diverse” and “has interests beyond Israel.” He said the Jewish community in America has a tradition as a “progressive force” concerned with children, civil rights, and civil liberties.
“Those are values … much more evident in our Democratic Party and that can’t be forgotten.”

He said that to the extent some Jews have gone over to the GOP, it’s been because of Israel. “And what I would simply suggest is look at the consequences of George Bush’s policies. The proof is in the point. I do not understand how anybody who is concerned about Israel’s security and the threat of Iran could be supportive of George Bush’s foreign policy. It has completely backfired. It is indisputable that Iran is the biggest strategic beneficiary of the war in Iraq. We have spent what will soon be close to a trillion dollars strengthening Iran, expanding their influence. How is that helpful to Israel? … You can’t make that argument.

“And so the problem that we’ve seen in US foreign policy generally has been this notion that being full of bluster and rattling sabers and being quick on the draw somehow makes you more secure.

“And keep in mind that I don’t know anybody in the Democratic Party, and I will say this for Hillary Clinton and I will say this for myself, who has indicated in any way that we would tolerate and allow to fester terrorist threats, that we wouldn’t hunt down, capture, or kill terrorists, that haven’t been supportive of Israel capturing or killing terrorists. So it’s not like we’re a bunch of folks asking to hold hands and sing ‘Kumbiya.’

“When Israel launched its counterattack against Hezbollah in Lebanon during the summer of 2006, I was in South Africa at the time, a place that was not particularly friendly to Israel at the time and I was asked by the press, what did you think? And I said, if somebody invades my country or is firing rockets into my country or kidnapping my soldiers, I will not tolerate that. And there’s no nation in the world that would.”

At this point, one of Obama’s aides told him he had time for one more question. A questioner asked him about press reports that he would consider Sen. Dick Lugar for his administration, given, again, his lack of friendliness toward Israel.

Obama said he was good friends with Lugar, and that Lugar “represents old school bi-partisan foreign policy.” He said that, among Republicans, Lugar was less ideologically driven, more driven by facts on the ground. After characterizing Lugar, he said he would “not be so presumptuous” to start talking about his cabinet, given that he is not yet the Democratic nominee.

Obama then decided, since his answer was relatively short, that he would take more questions. I raised my hand, and Obama called on me. I told him that I thought his approach to foreign policy — negotiating with your enemies – could be powerful strategically. I said that a few days earlier, I had met with my rabbi in Akron, and mentioned to him that I was going to be here this morning.

“The rabbi asked me to ask you whether you would meet with Hamas,” I said.

“The answer is no,” Obama said.

“What’s the distinction, then,” I asked, “between Hamas and Iran?”

“The distinction would be that … they’re not the head of state,” he said. “They are not a recognized government … There is a distinction to be drawn there and a legitimate distinction to be drawn.”

“Now, again,” he continued, “going back to my experiences in Israel and the discussions I’ve had with security officials there, I think that there are communications between the Israeli government and Hamas that may be two or three degrees removed, but people know what Hamas is thinking and what’s going on and the point is that, with respect to Hamas, you can’t have a conversation with somebody who doesn’t think you should be on the other side of the table. At the point where they recognize Israel and its right to exist, at the point where they recognize that they are not goingto be able to shove their world view down the throats of others but are going to have to sit down and negotiate without resort[ing] to violence, then I think that will be a different circumstance. That’s not the circumstance that we’re in right now.”

He then turned to the audience to take one more question, about Indonesia (where Obama lived as a child) and the United States’ approach to the Muslim world.

Obama said Indonesia represented a good case study. He said Indonesia actually had a very mild, tolerant brand of Islam when he was living there. In 1997, he said, the Asian financial crisis hit very hard, and Indonesia’s GDP contracted by 30 percent. Essentially, a poor country had been hit with a Great Depression.

“There was a direct correlation between the collapse of that economy and the rise of fundamentalist Islam inside of Indonesia,” he said.

Obama said there is a hard-core group of jihadist fundamentalists in the Islamic world who “we can’t negotiate with.” He said Richard Clarke, the former chief counter-terrorism advisor in the Bush administration, estimates that there are between 30,000 and 50,000 jihadists worldwide — “the hard core jihadists [who] would gladly blow up this room.” He added, though, that it’s a “finite number.”

“We have to hunt them down and knock them out. Incapacitate them. That’s the military aspects of dealing with this phenomenon … and that is where military action and intelligence has to be directed.”

“The question then is what do we do with the 1.3 billion Muslims who are along a spectrum of belief? Some extraordinarily moderate, some very pious but not violent. How do we reach out to them? And it is my strong belief that that is the battlefield that we have to worry about, and that is where we have been losing badly over the last seven years. That is where Iraq has been a disaster. That is where the lack of effective public diplomacy has been a disaster. That is where our failure to challenge seriously human rights violations by countries like Saudi Arabia that are our allies has been a disaster. And so what we have to do is to speak to that broader Muslim world in a way that says we will consistently support human rights, women’s rights. We will consistently invest in the kinds of educational opportunities for children in these communities, so that madrassas are not their only source of learning. We will consistently operate in ways that lead by example, so that we have no tolerance for a Guantanamo or renditions or torture. Those all contribute to people at least being open to our values and our ideas and a recognition that we are not the enemy and that the Clash of Civilizations is not inevitable.”

Obama closed with this: “Now, as I said, we enter into those conversations with the Muslim world being mindful that we also have to defend ourselves against those who will not accept the West, no matter how appropriately we engage. And that is the realism that has to leaven our hopefulness. But, we abandon the possibility of conversation with that broader Muslim world at our own peril.”

(After the event, the Obama campaign released a partial transcript to the press. You can find it here.)

Again, Obama received an extended standing ovation. He had spoken for about 45 minutes. And he was mobbed by well-wishers at the podium. One woman asked him why he was not nearly as specific in the debates. “We have 30 seconds!” Obama said. Another woman said: “It is so refreshing to hear someone think.”

When it was my turn, I shook his hand, introduced myself, and told him I had been working hard to defuse the smear campaigns directed at him. “It means a lot,” he said. “Thank you.”

I asked him if he could give me an autograph for my sons, Meyer and Heshel, and handed him a piece of paper and pen. As he began to write, I started spelling the names. “M-E-Y-E-R,” I said, “and Heshel, H-”

But Obama cut me off: “Like Abraham?” he asked.

I was surprised that Obama knew Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Maybe I shouldn’t have been. After all, Heschel had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and had been an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War; Heschel was a pious, pluralistic Jew committed to social action. But so few Jews today are even aware of Heschel and his legacy.

I nodded — Heschel had inspired the naming of our son — though we spelled it without the “c,” something that I forgot, in that moment, to add.

“To Meyer and Heschel,” he wrote. “Dream Big Dreams. Barack Obama.”

Obama-Biden: ‘Much Better for Israel’

Monday, October 13th, 2008

Congresswoman Jane Harman of California, a conservative, seven-term Blue Dog Democrat, is the chair of the Intelligence Subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee. She spent eight years on the House Intelligence Committee. The counter-terrorism expert has made some 20 trips to the Middle East.

“Things have gotten much more dangerous for Israel” under George Bush, she told some 700 people at an Obama rally outside Cleveland yesterday.

Syria was on its way to producing nuclear weapons until Israel destroyed the Syrian facility. Iran is forging ahead with nuclear weapons and killing American soldiers through its proxies in Iraq. “Pakistan and Afghanistan are near collapse,” she said. “And John McCain is still obsessed with Iraq.”

Obama, she said, will “conclude” the war in Iraq and help “structure a peaceful world.”

“There’s no question in my mind,” she said, “that Obama and Biden will be much better for Israel’s security than McCain-Palin.”

Right Tactics, Wrong Strategy

Monday, September 8th, 2008

Every four years, the Republicans run for president in an alternate reality, and win.

Someone explain this to me. According to the latest CNN poll, 64 percent of Americans currently oppose the war in Iraq. According to an ABC poll, 72 percent of Americans — including many Democrats — believe McCain would make a good commander-in-chief. That same poll found only 48 percent felt Obama would make a good commander-in-chief. It also found respondents were evenly split between supporting Obama’s plans for getting out of Iraq, and McCain’s for staying in.

It seems to me that the best way to assess fitness for commander-in-chief is to look at how McCain and Obama have approached the Iraq war. Here are some basics:

We invaded Iraq March 19, 2003. On April 9, we toppled the Saddam statue. On May 1, Bush stood on the aircraft carrier in front of the Mission Accomplished banner, declaring: “My fellow Americans: Major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”

As Frank Rich argues in his column today, McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin as VP is very reminiscent of his early support for the Iraq War:

We’ve already seen where such visceral decision-making by McCain can lead. In October 2001, he speculated that Saddam Hussein might have been behind the anthrax attacks in America. That same month he out-Cheneyed Cheney in his repeated public insistence that Iraq had a role in 9/11 — even after both American and foreign intelligence services found that unlikely. He was similarly rash in his reading of the supposed evidence of Saddam’s W.M.D. and in his estimate of the number of troops needed to occupy Iraq. (McCain told MSNBC in late 2001 that we could do with fewer than 100,000.) It wasn’t until months after “Mission Accomplished” that he called for more American forces to be tossed into the bloodbath. The whole fiasco might have been prevented had he listened to those like Gen. Eric Shinseki who faulted the Rumsfeld war plan from the start.

I did a little research, just to be more specific, and found this Salon article, which details McCain’s ardent support not only for the war — but for the original war plan. (“I have no qualms about our strategic plans,” he told the Hartford Courant in a March 5 article, [14 days] before the invasion. “I thought we were very successful in Afghanistan.”)

It wasn’t until August 29, 2003, after the U.N. headquarters was bombed, that McCain told NPR: “we need more troops,” adding: “When I say more troops, we need a lot more of certain skills, such as civil affairs capability, military police. We need more linguists.”

In other words, to put a finer point on Rich’s point, McCain made the first tentative criticism of the war plan five months after the invasion.

Here is how Salon puts it:

To buy into the McCain-knows-best version of the Iraq war, you have to ignore a lot of history. McCain was among the most aggressive proponents of a preemptive strike against Saddam Hussein, cosponsoring the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. He also expressed full faith in the way it would be executed — a war plan conceived and executed by Rumsfeld.
He did call for more troops in Iraq sooner than some, but later than others who made the same argument before the first shots were even fired. And McCain’s support for Rumsfeld only evaporated over time, as it became painfully clear that the war in Iraq was going south.
Bert Rockman, the head of the political science department at Purdue University, said McCain’s commander-in-chief argument is tarnished because he advocated “the right tactics and the wrong strategy.”

Putting aside the fact that, at the very start, he didn’t even have the right tactics (“Our technology, particularly air-to-ground technology, is vastly improved,” McCain told CNN’s Larry King on Dec. 9, 2002. “I don’t think you’re going to have to see the scale of numbers of troops that we saw, nor the length of the buildup, obviously, that we had back in 1991.”), this seems to me an accurate and irrefutable description of McCain’s fitness for commander-in-chief. Let’s flash forward and give him the Surge (I know — it’s not that simple, given the lack of political reconciliation — but violence is way down, and even Obama just said the Surge was wildly successful, so for the sake of argument ..) Right tactics, wrong strategy.

Now, here is what Barack Obama said on Oct. 2, 2002, in part, about the Iraq war. (If you haven’t yet read the speech, it’s worth clicking through):

Now let me be clear – I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity. He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.
But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history. I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the middle east, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.

It goes on — and gets even better; thoroughly prescient. For the record, here, four months later, just a month before the start of the war, is what might have been McCain’s rejoinder to Obama:

“As Vice President Cheney has said of those who argue that containment and deterrence are working, the argument comes down to this: Yes, Saddam is as dangerous as we say he is,” McCain said in a saber-rattling speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Feb. 13, 2003. “We just need to let him get stronger before we do anything about it,” he added sarcastically.

Could the record be any more clear that Obama had the right strategy?

In the alternate political reality in which we now live, McCain is credited with pushing the Surge, at great political peril; he gets away with blurring his early record, saying that he called for more troops and opposed Rumsfeld. He has never once been forced by Fox 5 to admit — as Obama was Thursday regarding his stance on the Surge — that he was flat-out wrong in his persistent advocacy for the Iraq war; flat-out wrong in his tactical approach.

A friend of mine — a doctor, who lives in Chicago — said to me the other day, effectively: the war’s over; we are moving ahead; it’s not an issue any
more. His point was, for forward-looking people, the difference between McCain and Obama on Iraq is not that great: both will get us out, sooner or later. Maybe my friend is in tune with what most people are thinking on this one.

To me, though, this wrinkle in time thinking is incomprehensible.

I’m not easily stamped as a bleeding heart anti-war lefty. I’m pretty upset at, still, for their callous and petty name-calling of Gen. Petraeus. But I insist on examining the record when determining for myself whether Obama or McCain is more fit to be commander-in-chief. After eight years of bluster and sabre-rattling from the Oval Office, eight years that has left our country adrift at home and strained our alliances the world over, nothing could be more relevant; nothing, more important.

Obama had the right strategy. He advocated his strategy at a time when few people were willing to stand up and say they opposed the war — it seemed like a great political risk at the time. So lump me in with the 48 percent.

Obama is exactly the kind of commander-in-chief this country desperately needs.

MY OBAMA MINUTE: Today, I emailed a friend here in Akron — the start of my efforts to organize the local Jewish community for Obama.

ND KUDOS: Go to loyal, for his first dailykos diary, about Palin’s descision to run for VP with a Down’s baby at home, which, last time I checked, had 32 responses! … and to my cousin for registering voters outside Target in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a crucial swing state! … and to my other cousin, for heading up Obama efforts outside Philly, in another crucial swing state! … and to barbara w, for spending time at the Obama phone bank this weekend … and to barbara w’s family, for circulating all those pro-Obama emails! Keep letting us know what you are doing! … And keep fighting the good fight!

McCain’s Israel Omission

Friday, September 5th, 2008

A party convention speech is an important thing. It gives us a sense of a candidate’s priorities. So what are we to make of the fact that, after allowing his convention to be used as a platform to batter Barack Obama on Israel (see, for example, Rudy Giuliani’s speech), John McCain took to the stage on the most important political night of his life and didn’t mention Israel, even once?

More than 4,400 words, by my count, and no mention of the Jewish State.

I know McCain supports Israel. And I suppose I might be feeling more charitable — more willing to overlook his unfortunate omission — were it not for groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition, which consistently seeks to use Israel as a wedge issue against Democrats. (Its home page states: “A Risky Choice Just Got Riskier: Obama-Biden,” claiming the Democrats have a poor record on Israel; it features articles like “Why Sarah Palin Will Likely Be Better For Israel Than Joe Biden.”) Likely? They do this, despite the fact that it’s ultimately detrimental to Israel, the very cause they espouse. (As even AIPAC notes, the best thing for Israel is strong, bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress.)

Unlike McCain, Obama did choose to mention the Jewish State during his moment in the international spotlight. (My wife was the one who pointed this out to me — it meant something to her.)

“You don’t defeat a terrorist network that operates in 80 countries by occupying Iraq,” he said. “You don’t protect Israel and deter Iran just by talking tough in Washington. You can’t truly stand up for Georgia when you’ve strained our oldest alliances. If John McCain wants to follow George Bush with more tough talk and bad strategy, that is his choice, but that is not the change that America needs.”

Indeed, in his speech, McCain was all too happy to talk tough.

“We have dealt a serious blow to Al Qaida in recent years, but they’re not defeated, and they’ll strike us again, if they can,” he said. “Iran remains the chief state sponsor of terrorism and is on the path to acquiring nuclear weapons.”

Obama, of course, talked tough on Iran, too. He said:

“I will end this war in Iraq responsibly and finish the fight against Al Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan. I will rebuild our military to meet future conflicts, but I will also renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and curb Russian aggression. I will build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear proliferation, poverty and genocide, climate change and disease.”

I’m a writer — a words guy. Words matter, especially when they are spoken by presidential candidates. Listen to the difference in their approaches.

McCain speaks in a language of fear, warning of imminent attacks. (See yesterday’s post: “A Tale of Two Speeches”) Obama speaks of partnerships and building up our military strength. He criticizes Bush’s strategic decision to attack Iran. He presents an argument: By that action, we have neglected the true fight against terrorist networks in 80 countries across the globe. He speaks of deterring Iran (rather than bomb, bomb, bomb … bomb, bomb b, bombing it), protecting Israel. I looked it up — it means: “to defend or guard from attack, invasion, loss, annoyance, insult, etc.; cover or shield from injury or danger.”

He made this pledge on a world stage before 42 million people.

McCain, apparently, didn’t feel the need to mention it.

Now, I know McCain supports Israel. But he also picked Sarah Palin, as his running mate.

A recent Jewish Telegraphic Agency article includes these startling grafs:

Republicans have been scouring the archives to uncover evidence of Palin’s outreach to Jews and to Israel.
Her single substantive act is signing a resolution in June marking 60 years of Alaska-Israel relations, launched improbably in 1948 when Alaska Airlines helped shepherd thousands of Yemeni Jews to Israel. However, she did not initiate the legislation: Its major mover was John Harris, the speaker of the Alaska House.
The paucity of material led the Republican Jewish Coalition to tout the appearance of a small Israeli flag propped against a window of the state Capitol in an online video in which Palin touts the virtues of hiking Juneau.

The best the RJC can do, in terms of her Israel record, is a small Israeli flag in an online video? And yet they are not only okay with this — they are pushing Palin, hard, on the Jewish community? This, after months criticizing Obama for his supposedly thin Israel resume?

Look, I’m nothing if not a Neurotic Democrat. I understand that rational and electable are two very different things. Do I need more proof than the AP article today, indicating that in the latest polling, Palin is more popular than Obama or McCain, with a 58 percent favorability rating? For picking her, McCain’s favorability ratings jumped 12 percent. About 51 percent believe reporters are deliberately trying to hurt Palin. Her numbers are better than Bidens’. And Friday mornings’ numbers already see the start of a McCain bounce that could totally wipe out Obama’s.

Thank god for my sister, who, today — depressed in the aftershock of this GOP convention — emailed me a Buddhist saying that she has on her wall, in her apartment in New York City: “He who says it cannot be done should get out of the way of the person doing it.”

We have 60 days until the election. I know it seems daunting to think about getting out and pitching in. But look — when I was in graduate school for writing at Johns Hopkins, a teacher of mine gave me a trick to get us going: Don’t think about writing every day — that may seem too hard — just start out with 30 minutes a day, and go from there. Later in my career, a teacher at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop went even further, saying: Write for one minute a day. That’s it. You’ll see, he said — it will turn into more.

Start there. Take one minute a day, for the next 60 days, and do something for this cause. Send an email to a wavering friend or family member. Send the Obama campaign $5 through the Web. Put a bumpersticker on your car, a button on your shirt, a lawn sign in front of your house. Do something — no matter how small — every day for the next two months. It will matter. And it will add up!

In his acceptance speech last night, John McCain said: “My friends, if you find faults with our country, make it a better one. If you’re disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them … Fight for what’s right for our country. Fight for the ideals and
character of a free people.”

John McCain — you can bet your bottom dollar we will.

Shabbat Shalom.