Tuesday, May 27, 2008


I know it's a little bit late already, but I really wanted to discuss this.
Bush's speech to the the Knesset was overall a beautiful speech, and I don't generally have too many kind words to say about Bush. However, his unfortunate comments about appeasement were truly a disgrace. When a president of the United States is visiting a foreign country, they are a representative of our country, not of their political party, and it is simply not the place to be making partisan political points. I will grant it's not entirely clear he was talking about Barack Obama. He may, for instance, have been talking about Jimmy Carter. However, anyone who's been around politics long enough is aware that "There are those" is always code for "My political opponents" in a way that can give you plausible deniability when accused of negative campaigning and put your opponents on the defensive.

Beyond the disgrace of politicizing a speech to a foreign government is the sheer factual inaccuracy of the comment. We can argue over the wisdom of talking with our enemies (and I will address this shortly), but equating it with the appeasement of Hitler is just not true. When we talk about the Munich conference, the appeasement was not in the fact that we were talking to Hitler, it was in the fact that we gave him parts of Czechoslovakia. The real irony in all this, is that when it come to his policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bush has been one of the worse appeasers of all time. Sure, he'll make real tough speeches, and have his minions on the right go out and deliver talking points about he's the best friend Israel has ever had, and how the Democrats can't be trusted, but his actions simply do not match his rhetoric. In the face of Palestinian terrorism, Bush and his administration have continuously pressured Israel to remove security fences, stop settlement growth, and remove checkpoints at border crossings as "gestures of good faith." Well, while talking with terrorists might not be appeasement, gestures of good faith to them certainly are. Whatever decline there's been in terrorism is certainly not the result of Bush's policies, but of Ariel Sharon's wisdom in ignoring them.

But what about this issue of talking itself? I must say, when I first heard the idea, I was skeptical. As I've said before, I was a Clinton supporter, and was far more sympathetic to her position. However, the more I've researched the idea, the more I like it. As others have already pointed out numerous times, there really is nothing radical in the proposal. Presidents from Kennedy to Nixon to Reagan met with the leaders of China or the Soviet Union. (As an aside, if John McCain thinks Iran is a bigger threat than the Soviet Union was, he's either delusional, or has no understanding of foreign policy, or as I suspect, both. The Soviet Union had nuclear weapons. Iran is only trying to get them. I will grant that if they ever actually got them, they could be more dangerous than the Soviet Union was, but currently they're not even close.) The one thing else I'd like to add is that Obama's proposal really reminds me of the aphorism of one of John McCain's political heroes, Teddy Roosevelt. "Speak softly and carry a big stick." The military option's always on the table, and when you go in to negotiate, you make sure they know that, and then you see what concessions you can get out of them. You may get nothing, and have to resort to military actions, but there's nothing lost by talking to them first. As Joe Biden astutely pointed out, "Talking to someone doesn't mean we're giving up our ability to say no to them."

Some people seem to be worried that talking to someone grants them legitimacy. First of all, I don't think it's true. Talking to an enemy doesn't make them any less our enemy. Second of all, I don't think nations like Iran care very much about legitimacy from the US. These people would have you believe that while these nations talk about destroying us, the thing they really seek is our approval. If they cared in the least about our approval, the would have abandoned their bellicose ways a long time ago. Now obviously, if we want to maximize our hope of getting concessions from them, there needs to be significant preparation before the presidential meeting, and Obama has made it clear he would make those. I'm reasonably certain those kinds of lower level meetings are going on even now. They usually happen in secret. One more caveat I should add is I do think there's a different between a President Obama meeting with Iran, and Jimmy Carter meeting with Hamas. First of all, negotiations have to be done with an official representative of the government. Second of all, negotiating with your own enemies is one thing, but going behind your ally's back to negotiate with their enemies without them being involved, could really undercut their position.

Now John McCain at least has been consistent with his position on this issue most of the time. This is the man who criticized Bill Clinton in 1994 for making a deal with North Korea instead of attacking them. The man has no tolerance for evil in the world and thinks the only appropriate response is to destroy it militarily. There's a certain quixotic nobility to the position. I wish we could just destroy all evil in the world too. However, we're not all-powerful and it isn't a world of absolutes. Sometimes we need to cut deals with people we don't like to get the lesser of 2 evils. This certainly seems preferable to all out war with North Korea. The more I listen to the candidates, the more I am convinced that Obama understands the realities of the world and offers a progressive, pragmatic approach for dealing with them, whereas John McCain's approach is "simplistic" and "dangerously naive."

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Obama and Israel

Even though, I've been a Clinton supporter since the beginning, as it seems like the race is nearing its end and Obama is going to be the nominee, I'm going to make my first post about him.

Obviously, it's reasonable to not want to vote for a candidate based on their stated position on any given issue. What astounds me about Obama is the number of people I've met who seem not to want to vote for him based on positions he's never taken. In particular, I would like to address the fact that no matter what he says, people seem to want to portray him as an enemy of Israel.

Obama has time and again expressed his unyielding support for the security of the State of Israel, most significantly in his recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic Online. This interview really goes beyond the standard boilerplate speech ("Israel is a strategic and moral ally, and her security is absolutely vital to America's interests") every politician running for national office will deliver to the AIPAC convention, though I don't wish to diminish the importance of those speeches. This is personal. It is passionate. It shows a very deeply rooted understanding of the significance of Zionism to the Jewish people that we seldom hear these days. Take for instance:

"I think that the idea of a secure Jewish state is a fundamentally just idea, and a necessary idea, given not only world history but the active existence of anti-Semitism, the potential vulnerability that the Jewish people could still experience. I know that that there are those who would argue that in some ways America has become a safe refuge for the Jewish people, but if you’ve gone through the Holocaust, then that does not offer the same sense of confidence and security as the idea that the Jewish people can take care of themselves no matter what happens. That makes it a fundamentally just idea."

or this:

"I think the idea of Israel and the reality of Israel is one that I find important to me personally. Because it speaks to my history of being uprooted, it speaks to the African-American story of exodus, it describes the history of overcoming great odds and a courage and a commitment to carving out a democracy and prosperity in the midst of hardscrabble land. One of the things I loved about Israel when I went there is that the land itself is a metaphor for rebirth, for what’s been accomplished."

And yet, there are those who would maintain that this is no more than election-year pandering for Jewish votes, designed to disguise his real views which are far more sinister. Now I wasn't born yesterday; I know politicians, including Obama, do pander, and aren't always completely honest. For the most part, though, when politicians lie, the lies take one of two forms. One is exaggerating their accomplishments. This Obama has certainly done, like when he tried to claim a 3 week trip to Pakistan when he was in college as foreign policy experience. (McCain, of course, is the worst at this, when he tries to claim that being a prisoner of war gives him foreign policy credentials. We all respect the hardship he went through, but gimme a break, sitting in prison and being tortured does not make you an expert on how to protect our country.) The other typical kind of political lie is promising more than you know you can deliver, i.e. pandering, and examples of this are too numerous to list here. (Of course, there's also the ever popular "I did not have sex with _____" lie, but that doesn't relate to the person's politics, so it doesn't really concern me.) Politicians, by and large, do not deliberately misrepresent their ideologies as the exact opposite of what they actually are. It take a truly corrupt politician, like George W. Bush or Richard Nixon, to do that. I have no reason to believe Barack Obama is that corrupt, any more than I do John McCain is. After all, if election year pledges of support to Israel are suspect as mere pandering, why shouldn't John McCain's be suspect as well?

I know some people will tell me that John McCain has a long record of support for Israel to back up his election-year claims that Barack Obama lacks. It is true that Obama's record is short: a natural consequence of having only come onto the national political scene 4 years ago. But the record he has amassed in 4 years is absolutely perfect. He has a 100% pro-Israel voting record according to AIPAC. He has expressed support for Israel in specific, detailed ways in speech after speech, even to groups that weren't necessarily receptive to the ideas. I would dare anyone to find one negative comment about Israel in Obama's record. Of course, we can debate what impact his other policies might indirectly have on Israel, and perhaps I will dedicate another post to talking about this, but even if you disagree with him as to how to best support Israel, that's a far cry from saying he doesn't have Israel's best interests at heart. Despite all this, I think there are 4 reasons by people are still skeptical:

1) Anonymous emails
These have been so thoroughly debunked by this point that I'm not going to devote any extra time to talking about them, though there are people who insist on believing them.

2) Rev. Wright

Barack Obama's pastor of many years, a man with whom, until recently, he seemed to have a very close relationship, has definitively anti-Israel views (not to mention some rather nutty positions on a host of other issues). I think any attempt to make Obama somehow culpable for this is a ridiculous guilt-by-association charge. The man running for president is Barack Obama, not Jeremiah Wright, and Obama has made it perfectly clear all along that those views are not his own. True, he didn't denounce Rev. Wright by name until recently, but when he states an opinion, and that opinion is not the same as what Rev. Wright espouses, it is clear that he is disagreeing with Rev. Wright. He doesn't need to follow up every opinion with a list of friends who disagree with it. And it is perfectly reasonable to have friends, even close friends, with whom you have strong political disagreements. I know I have friends I wouldn't necessarily trust as president, but that doesn't mean I have to stop being friends with them. Heck, if I left every synagogue where the Rabbi said something I disagreed with, I wouldn't have any place in the world to pray. It's absurd to say that for someone to be president, they not only need to be pro-Israel, but every one of their friends needs to pass the Israel test as well. If that becomes legitimate, there won't be a person left who's eligible. Believe me, I'm sure we could find a few anti-Israel statements from friends of John McCain as well.

3) Liberalism

There has been a growing distrust of liberals with regards to Israel in recent years, and Barack Obama is, no doubt, a liberal. It is true that there are some vocal critics of Israel on the fringe left, but this is by no means representative of liberals in general. Besides, for every Ralph Nader or Al Sharpton you find on the left, you'll find a Bob Novak or Pat Buchanan on the right. The mainstream Democratic Party has always been committed to the security of the State of Israel. The list of speakers at any AIPAC conference always includes just as many Democrats as Republicans, and in fact, since the Democrats took control of congress, the amount of foreign aid to Israel has increased. I have worked closely with many young activists of the Democratic Party, and believe me, the commitment to Israel is as strong as it ever was.

4) Race

It is sad to say this, but think one of the biggest reasons many people still don't trust Barack Obama on Israel is his race. Unfortunately, there have been a few prominent leaders of the African American community lately, like Jesse Jackson or Louis Farrakhan, who have not been the biggest friends of Israel. However, anyone who has ever listened to Barack Obama speak knows he does not buy into their divisive rhetoric. He is far more like the uniting (and staunchly pro-Israel) Martin Luther King Jr. To try and lump Obama together with the demagogues merely because he shares their skin color, is blatantly racist and I hope we can all rise above that.

I would like to conclude by pointing out that Israel has enjoyed strong bipartisan support for her entire existence, and it is to Israel's benefit for it to continue to enjoy strong bipartisan support. Anyone who would try to use Israel to score partisan points (and I'm not accusing John McCain personally of doing this) instead of framing it as the one issue we can all unite around, definitely does not have Israel's best interests at heart. Given, everything I've discussed, I think in order for anyone to continue to seriously believe Barack Obama is not on Israel's side, they would have to be willing to believe conspiracy theories on the level of The Manchurian Candidate. The kind of conspiracy theory I might expect Rev. Wright to believe, but not any intelligent, rational voter.