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Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > The Lesser of Two Evils? Obama, McCain and the Question of US Policy (…)


The Lesser of Two Evils? Obama, McCain and the Question of US Policy Regarding Israel

Thursday 4 September 2008, by Benjamin Dwyer

After a long and tortured primary season, Barack Obama, the junior Senator from Illinois, took the Democratic Party nomination for US president from Hilary Clinton, who many thought likely to become the party’s candidate. John McCain, a Senator from Arizona and former Republican presidential candidate in 2000, emerged from a group of mediocre candidates to clinch the Republican nomination.

The candidates themselves, varying dramatically on domestic issues, and, to a lesser degree foreign policy issues, find themselves united as all American politicians are, in their unreflective, uncritical and self-serving support of Israel and the status quo. Much like US policy towards Cuba, a small but diligent group of voters has enforced a continuing policy that may not be beneficial to the United States.

John McCain, shedding the “maverick” label that he had defined for himself since his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2000, has become increasingly hawkish in the intervening years, especially in regards to Iraq and Iran. McCain has now articulated a position on Iraq that essentially calls for American soldiers to remain on the ground for “maybe 100” years. While he later clarified those statements in an attempt to temper their meaning, saying that he foresaw an American presence similar to that in Korea or Japan, McCain added another layer of meaning. Taken in conjunction with the largest armored diplomatic compound in the world, which the United States has constructed over the last several years, and the recent granting of no-bid, immensely lucrative contracts to western oil companies, this would seem to indicate that McCain is perfectly comfortable continuing the neo-colonial corporate endeavors undertaken by the Bush administration. McCain has, as recently as June, employed 22 ex-oil lobbyists on his campaign, and adopted a platform that calls for the cutting of corporate taxes, a move that would save the oil companies involved in the no-bid Iraq contracts US$1.7 billion.

With regards to Iran, McCain has stated that “Iran is dedicated to the destruction of Israel...” and has used this unequivocal commitment to Israel’s security in tandem with Iran’s purported nuclear ambitions to develop an Iranian policy that is aggressively Israel-centric. McCain is not alone in doing so, however. The US response, from both parties, to the Iranian bomb has been formed through a prism of support for Israel. Rather than focusing on some of the more pertinent regional destabilization and proliferation issues, central to any discussion of Iranian nuclear ambitions, has been the existential question of Israel’s territorial integrity. Contrary to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s absurd and troubling statements about the Holocaust and possibly mistranslated remarks about wiping Israel off the map, there are larger strategic issues in regards to an Iranian nuclear weapon program that have gone unaddressed by both campaigns.

Saudi reappraisal of the strategic balance in the Middle East has caused a resurgence of rumors that Saudi Arabia will undertake a nuclear weapons development program. Saudi Arabia certainly has the financial wherewithal to develop such a program, along with the technical ability, and increasingly a motive. In May of this year the United States signed an agreement with the Saudi kingdom to bolster its civilian nuclear energy program. This comes shortly after Russia and Egypt signed a similar deal, and the United States has tacitly signed on to a Jordanian nuclear program. Despite India’s nuclear program, and its non-membership in most anti-proliferation treaties, the United States in 2006 gave India access to its civilian nuclear technology, totally undercutting the global non-proliferation regime. By eviscerating the non-proliferation regime, the United States looks hypocritical, and can only turn to the threat to Israel as a motivator to impose sanctions, or, as it looks increasingly likely, to conduct strikes on Iran. Perhaps one of the most tasteless moments of this campaign to date has been McCain’s Iran serenade: “You know that old Beach Boys song, Bomb Iran? Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.” McCain followed that comment up with the statement that “Iran is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. That alone should concern us but now they are trying for nuclear capabilities. I totally support the President when he says we will not allow Iran to destroy Israel.”

Rather than seeking to grasp the regional, historical or symbolic significance of nuclear weapons in Iran, it seems as though the US has chosen to understand the Iranian weapon solely through Iran’s malicious intentions towards Israel; this prism has thus created a distorted image of Iran’s intentions, practices, statements, and strategic actions.

While there is no doubt Iranian nuclear aspirations are troubling for Israel, one wellspring for Mr. McCain’s support for Israel is perhaps equally troubling. Senator McCain has never been a fan of the evangelical right, and they have reciprocated, helping secure the 2000 Republican presidential nomination for George W. Bush. In this campaign, however, Senator McCain has made a major push for evangelical support and has received it, including from figures such as John Hagee. John Hagee, a major force in the US evangelical movement, has stated that Hitler acted as God’s agent, and that the Holocaust was the will of God. Perhaps if the word “God” was replaced with “Allah,” one might confuse his remarks with the appalling statements of a certain Iranian president. Nonetheless, John Hagee is seen as one of the staunchest supporters of Israel, based on the notion of Christian Zionism. Christian Zionism is predicated on the biblical interpretation that Christ cannot come, bringing with him the apocalypse, without the restoration of the Jewish state of Israel. This self-serving theology has lead to a bizarre relationship between groups such as the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee ( AIPAC) and evangelical leaders; this relationship has served as the backbone for right-wing Christian support for Israel that has sought to undercut any sort of peace process.

John McCain has been forced to distance himself from John Hagee, due to the latter’s acidic comments about Catholics as well as Jews, but there is no doubt that the endorsement by John Hagee has helped shore up support for McCain amongst evangelicals who were leery of supporting him.

Although Hagee is an extreme example of the Christian Zionist current in American politics, McCain himself is more representative of a mainstream sentiment that the United States and Israel are to some degree “fighting the same fight.” McCain has said that we must be steeled against “...the transcendent challenge of our time: the threat of radical Islamic terrorism.” This sentiment, that the United States and Israel are natural allies in the war on terror, and that Israel stands as a Western bulwark against the encroaching Orient, is a common sentiment in the US.

The false dichotomy between us and them has provided powerful ammunition to those who would propagate these myths. Even voters who may not usually recognize such a false dichotomy have blithely accepted Israel as essential to a successful war on terror, rather than fatally undermining it. Presidential candidates should recognize this and realize that perhaps the most successful method to combat terrorism is to take away radicals’ ammunition by resolving the Israel/Palestine conflict.

This issue, much more so than evangelical support for Israel, has helped shore up support for Israel.

Mr. Obama, running a campaign based on change, hope, and audacity, has shown precious little of these amorphous aspects in regards to the Israel/Palestine conflict. The day after his nomination was numerically assured, he gave a speech at the annual conference of AIPAC in which he kowtowed to the status quo, calling for the failed two-state solution and, perhaps surprisingly, calling for Jerusalem to remain undivided as Israel’s capital. He has since attempted to rescind these statements prior to a trip to Israel and the West Bank, scheduled for 22-23 July. This is sure to perpetuate American Jewish fears about Obama’s commitment to Israel, despite the willingness he has shown at this point to pander. The American Jewish mistrust of Obama is largely based on a whisper campaign that has falsely claimed that he is a practicing Muslim, educated in a madrassah (religious school) and has willfully misconstrued his stated willingness to negotiate with Iran. The most positive aspects of Mr. Obama’s campaign have been his willingness to resort to diplomatic solutions, as well as his ability to retain skilled and intelligent advisors. His advisors, however, have been a source of criticism by those who doubt his commitments to Israel. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, has long been a subject of great attention amongst those who have sought to oust former President Carter’s advisors from the public sphere. Mr. Brzezinski has in the past defended the highly controversial book “The Israel Lobby” by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. Mr. Brzezinski wrote in Foreign Affairs: "Given that the Middle East is currently the central challenge facing America, Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have rendered a public service by initiating a much needed public debate on the role of the ’Israel lobby’ in the shaping of US foreign policy.”

Another advisor, General Merrill McPeak, former Air Force Chief of Staff and Obama’s military advisor and national campaign co-chairman, has consistently criticized what he sees as the American Jewish and Christian Zionist pressure that has obstructed peace efforts in Israel.

Obama’s Jewish surrogates have moved quickly to staunch criticisms of Obama, and have worked particularly hard at fighting the whisper campaign that had disseminated misinformation about Senator Obama. The latest New Yorker cover most succinctly sums up many American and Jewish fears about Mr. Obama; the cover depicts Obama in traditional Muslim garb, while he fist-bumps his wife, who is dressed as a black radical with an AK-47 slung over her back. An American flag is burning in a fireplace behind them, with a portrait of Osama bin Laden on the wall. While the American Left has raised holy hell in the last few days about the cover, it’s a telling piece of satire that is an indication of just how explosive Mr. Obama’s character is perceived to be, by the Right in its misperceptions, aided and abetted by the media, and compounded by the Left’s vitriolic reaction to a caricature.

The greatest substantive criticism that can be leveled at Senator Obama is simply that he lacks a far-sighted or original vision for the Middle East, and the Israel/Palestine conflict. He is clearly an intelligent man, capable and well versed in policy, even with a tendency to get a little wonky. But when it comes to Israel/Palestine, he is content with the status quo. He has offered some criticisms of the settlements, but they were tepid at best. Given Senator Obama’s commitment to social justice, a cause he has worked for on the ground for years, his understanding of early Zionist commitments to socialism and justice are encouraging, but do not result in any meaningful understanding of the present. In an interview with Jeffery Goldberg he said: “...that (desire for a sense of place) mixed with a great affinity for the idea of social justice that was embodied in the early Zionist movement and the kibbutz, and the notion that not only do you find a place but you also have this opportunity to start over and to repair the breaches of the past. I found this very appealing.”

Obama understands the powerful vision for social justice, a call for equality and a place for the Jews, but also for the Palestinians, that is found in early socialist Zionist ideology. But he fails to understand just how warped and twisted Zionism as a concept, and a conception, has become in modern Israel. Obama’s issue is not his frame of reference, or even his values. It’s that he refuses to take them to their logical conclusions. Rather than denouncing the settlements as a threat to the early visions of Zionism (or even modern Zionism a la Ariel Sharon or Olmert) or as a flagrant violation against the idea of social justice, Senator Obama in that same interview anemically stated “Settlements at this juncture are not helpful.” Hardly inspiring words from someone attempting to lay claim to the mantle of social justice.

Jeffery Goldberg in a New York Times opinion piece perhaps put it best when he wrote “but what Israel needs is an American president who not only helps defend it against the existential threat posed by Iran and Islamic fundamentalism, but helps it to come to grips with the existential threat from within. A pro-Israel president today would be one who prods the Jewish state—publicly, continuously and vociferously—to create conditions on the West Bank that would allow for the birth of a moderate Palestinian state.”

I would perhaps put it in stronger terms, questioning whether Israel’s moral authority has been squandered beyond credibility, but certainly an American president who forces genuine reflection on the political status and internal existential crisis that has gripped Israel would be a step in the right direction. Moreover, a strong denouncement of the Wall and settlements would go a long way in beginning to address the tangible elements of colonial Zionism that has sought to co-opt what it could not ontologically obliterate.

Barack Obama, at this juncture, is not a step in the right direction towards a just resolution in Israel/Palestine. John McCain is clearly a destructive step in the wrong direction, however. The question then becomes, what is a reflective, informed American voter to do? In the American two-party system, we are given few options, or choices ranging from dreadful to mediocre. I don’t have a pensioner’s party to vote for out of protest, nor do I have Meretz, much less anyone even further to the Left. So do I hold my nose and vote for Senator Obama, hoping he’ll come around? At this point the status quo is so toxic that it threatens to poison the entire direction of the Israel/Palestine conflict, so supporting Barack Obama’s Israel/Palestine position is something I wonder if I will be able bring myself to do.

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