Sunday, June 15, 2008

Barack's commitment to the security of Israel and the threat from Iran

Even when Barack Obama gives a fairly detailed speech on some topic or issue, I find myself wondering where he really stands. He famously declared that he was prepared to talk with Iran "without preconditions", but then "clarified" that he meant that he is "willing to meet, without preconditions but with preparation, the leaders of Iran." This not-so-subtle distinction between "preconditions" and "preparations" is simply a pile of rhetorical crap. There are different stages in sincere talks, and in the early stages the parties typically do not agree on anything other than the need to talk, even if nothing substantial is accomplished. Then talks and "relations" can move incrementally on to "confidence building", and only eventually get to talks that are actually getting down to resolving "preparations" or whatever fuzzy rhetorical term you want to use. But only after all of that preliminary shuffling will the parties be prepared to finally get down to working out the real issues. In any case, one litmus test of what he "means" is what he tells the U.S. Jewish community. In his speech to AIPAC (America Israel Public Affairs Committee, "America's Pro-Israel Lobby") on June 4, 2008 he "clarified" a number of elements of his position on Israel, Iran, and the Middle East, but all of these clarifications still leave me wondering what his core beliefs really are. In his speech is said:

  • "And I know that when I visit with AIPAC, I am among friends. Good friends. Friends who share my strong commitment to make sure that the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable today, tomorrow, and forever."
  • "We must mean what we say when we speak the words: "never again.""
  • "... as President I will never compromise when it comes to Israel's security."
  • "I have been proud to be a part of a strong, bi-partisan consensus that has stood by Israel in the face of all threats."
  • "But part of our commitment must be speaking up when Israel's security is at risk, and I don't think any of us can be satisfied that America's recent foreign policy has made Israel more secure."
  • "And I will bring to the White House an unshakeable commitment to Israel's security."
  • "That starts with ensuring Israel's qualitative military advantage. I will ensure that Israel can defend itself from any threat – from Gaza to Tehran. Defense cooperation between the United States and Israel is a model of success, and must be deepened."
  • "Let me be clear. Israel's security is sacrosanct. It is non-negotiable."

Okay, that certainly sounds clear... when it comes to the security of Israel, Barack is much more of a right-wing hawk than a dovish peacemaker. That's what his speech sounds like. The words "never compromise" do not sound like a facilitator, a conciliator, a "uniter", or a peacemaker. In fact, they sound awfully like those of right-wing hawks like Dick Cheney. But, as I continue to say, despite Barack's flowery rhetoric, I still wonder where he really stands, on Israel, on Iran, or anything else. I strongly suspect that he actually is willing to compromise in search of peace in the Middle East, but for now he is "committed" to the "old politics" of telling different groups what they want to hear.

Back to Iran, Barack tells us in his speech that:

  • "The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat."
  • " I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
  • "That starts with aggressive, principled diplomacy without self-defeating preconditions, but with a clear-eyed understanding of our interests."
  • "There will be careful preparation. We will open up lines of communication, build an agenda, coordinate closely with our allies, and evaluate the potential for progress. Contrary to the claims of some, I have no interest in sitting down with our adversaries just for the sake of talking. But as President of the United States, I would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leader at a time and place of my choosing - if, and only if - it can advance the interests of the United States."
  • "Finally, let there be no doubt: I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel."

I am all for "principled diplomacy", but I would like to hear a lot more about the principles.

Personally, it seems very clear to me that Iran is not very susceptible to aggressive pressure. They seem to revel in external pressure. The issue for Barack will not be to ramp up his rhetoric, but simply the fact that unless he intends to string out "The Iranian Threat" for a full eight years and longer, he will need to come up with a plan for the "Or what?". The problem with really "tough" sanctions, the kind that would cause Iran real pain, is that they very quickly begin to boomerang and either directly cause us significant pain (e.g., disruption of business deals and U.S. exports and oil supply disruptions) or have significant indirect effects such as further fueling resentment and extremism towards the U.S.

I do believe that diplomacy can work in the Middle East, but it needs to be quiet and completely behind the scenes and even and fairhanded and open to significant compromise with all parties. Let's hope that Barack's speech to AIPAC was mostly a lot of posturing to gain the support of an influential lobbying group and less a statement of his core beliefs and intentions. Let's hope that once elected he turns back towards being a pragmatic, centrist realist, and away from the ultra-hawkish extremist that he tried to pass himself off as when speaking before AIPAC.

-- Jack Krupansky


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