October 23, 2012 § 2 Comments
So, how about that foreign policy debate last night? Among some of the international affairs topics discussed by our two august candidates for president was the auto industry bailout, economic opportunities for the middle class, how to balance the budget, bayonet manufacturing and horse husbandry…well, you get the point. I made a joke on Twitter before the debate started alluding to the fact that, unlike during the first two debates, nobody was going to be complaining about the lack of foreign policy in this debate, but turns out the joke was on me. Mitt Romney was all too happy to shift the debate away from foreign policy to the economy and President Obama for some reason followed. I’m still waiting for the promised foreign policy debate.
One topic that did come up early and often, however, was Israel. Obama was the first to break the seal, and both candidates spent a lot of time playing up their pro-Israel credentials. Curiously, Romney initially seemed to back off his early and often claim that Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus” and when he resurrected his usual line of attack later on, Obama hit back at him hard by comparing Romney’s fundraising trip to Israel to Obama’s own trip to Israel during the previous campaign when Obama visited Yad Vashem and the rocket-scarred border town of Sderot. So aside from the fact that the debate was held in Boca Raton and that Florida has a large Jewish population, why so much focus on Israel? As much as some people like to shout about the Israel lobby, Israel happens to be very popular with U.S. voters generally, and some important swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio have a high percentage of Jewish voters. The race by each candidate to establish pro-Israel bonafides is caused by the electoral college, and not the Israel lobby. Were there a national popular vote rather than a state-by-state one, Israel would come up a lot less.
More interesting is not that Israel was mentioned so often (22 times vs. not one mention of Europe, which is a staggering fact to digest about a supposed foreign policy debate given everything going on in the Eurozone at the moment), but that Obama was the first one to do it. Israel is generally viewed as a weak spot for Obama given the uneasy relationship he has with Bibi Netanyahu and the constant GOP attacks on Obama’s record toward Israel, and I would have bet that Romney would bring up Israel and try to hammer Obama over the head with it and force him to play defense. That Obama preempted Romney and repeated again and again that Israel is America’s greatest ally in the Middle East, that Egypt breaking its peace treaty with Israel is a red line for the U.S., and that the U.S. will back Israel if it is attacked says to me that the Obama campaign has some internal polling that is scaring it to death. Obama had clearly also prepared a strong and challenging answer for Romney’s contention that Obama was not sufficiently pro-Israel and he hit him hard with it when the opportunity arose. Obama knows that beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt and continuing through his own victory in 2008, only once has a Democrat been elected president without winning at least 75 percent of the Jewish vote (Jimmy Carter received 64 percent in 1976), and I think based on last night that he is legitimately worried about what will happen should he miss that threshold.
A few other quick and not so quick thoughts on non-Israel related topics:
There was much speculation a few months ago about which camp was winning the fight for Romney’s foreign policy soul, the neoconservative wing or the GOP establishment realist wing. It seems pretty clear after last night that John Bolton and Romney’s other neocon advisors appear to have lost the battle. Romney disavowed intervention in Syria and was not pushing too hard for a war with Iran, and in many ways agreed with much of what Obama has been trying to do.
For me, the most disheartening part of of the debate last night was the brief section on drones. The reason it was brief is because Obama and Romney apparently have the exact same position on the subject, which is that drones are a great tool that the U.S. employs and are entirely unproblematic. I know most people don’t think much about the drone war taking place in Pakistan and that the public is generally supportive of it, but this is something that desperately needs to be debated. As Justin Green succinctly put it, “This is the time partisanship should cause these questions to arise, but instead we have a consensus on the issue. Shameful.” Leaving aside the fact that the drone war may be radicalizing an entire new generation of people, or that it leaves large numbers of civilian casualties in its wake, or that the Obama administration has taken the unprecedented – and to my mind blatantly unconstitutional – step of claiming the right to kill American citizens extrajudicially via drones without any type of meaningful due process, there is another serious issue the drone war raises, which is that we are opening a dangerous Pandora’s box. At some point other states are going to ramp up their use of drones as well, and I don’t quite know what our response will be given our current behavior when China or Russia or Iran starts flying drones over U.S. territory. I desperately wish that if this issue were to unite both parties it would be in the other direction, but at the very least we need to have some debate on this, rather than Obama talking about how great the policy is and Romney nodding his head as vigorously as he can.
Finally, Romney’s call for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be indicted for advocating genocide was a bit curious given what I am sure is his position on international tribunals and universal jurisdiction. If Ahmadinejad were to be indicted, the indictment would be issued by the International Criminal Court, a body which nearly all Republicans are opposed to and to which the U.S. has not joined as a member (and with good reason, in my view). I am certain that Romney does not support the idea of international judicial organizations having the power to bring criminal cases across all national boundaries, and yet he forcefully advocated such a move for Ahmadinejad. Talk about head-spinning!
July 31, 2012 § 4 Comments
When John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published their controversial article on the “Israel Lobby” in the London Review of Books in March 2006, they defined the lobby as follows:
We use ‘the Lobby’ as shorthand for the loose coalition of individuals and organisations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. This is not meant to suggest that ‘the Lobby’ is a unified movement with a central leadership, or that individuals within it do not disagree on certain issues. Not all Jewish Americans are part of the Lobby, because Israel is not a salient issue for many of them…
Jewish Americans have set up an impressive array of organisations to influence American foreign policy, of which AIPAC is the most powerful and best known. In 1997,Fortune magazine asked members of Congress and their staffs to list the most powerful lobbies in Washington. AIPAC was ranked second behind the American Association of Retired People, but ahead of the AFL-CIO and the National Rifle Association. ANational Journal study in March 2005 reached a similar conclusion, placing AIPAC in second place (tied with AARP) in the Washington ‘muscle rankings’.
When their argument was published in book form one year later, the definition remained the same, although “Lobby” was switched to the less conspiratorial looking “lobby” and “steer” was changed to “shape.” The point was clear though; the Israel lobby is made up of groups and empowered individuals who seek to influence the foreign policy process. Mearsheimer and Walt swore up and down that they were not indicting Jews or Jewish voters wholesale, but were seeking to expose the activities of a select “loose coalition.”
With that background information in mind, Walt wrote a blog post yesterday purporting to put Mitt Romney’s various remarks over the weekend while in Israel into context. According to Walt, Romney was engaging in a time honored bipartisan tradition of pandering to the Israel lobby, but -
The good news, such as it is, is that both Romney and Obama are probably lying. No matter how many times each of them talks about the “unshakeable commitment” to Israel, or even of their “love” for the country, they don’t really mean it. They are simply pandering to domestic politics, which is something that all American politicians do on a host of different issues. Of course, they will still have to shape their policies with the lobby’s clout in mind (as Obama’s humiliating retreat on the settlement issue demonstrates), but nobody should be under the illusion that they genuinely believe all the flattering stuff that they are forced to say.
None of this is new or surprising, since Walt writes variations on this theme regularly. What is noteworthy about this particular Walt missive is that his definition of the lobby is far more expansive than usual. He opens by saying, “Pandering to special interest groups is a time-honored American political tradition, especially in an election year…Whether we are talking about the farm lobby, the NRA, the AARP, Big Pharma, Wall Street, or various ethnic lobbies, it’s inevitable that politicians running for office will say and do lots of stupid things to try to win influential groups over.” So the expectation is that what will follow is an exegesis about how Romney has been trying to win over the groups, or even people, that Walt has previously identified as making up the Israel lobby.
That is not, however, what Walt does. Instead, Walt explicitly states that he is talking about Jewish voters. In the second paragraph, right after the sentences about lobbies that I quoted above, he states about Romney, “He wasn’t trying to win over Israelis or make up for his various gaffes in London; his goal was to convince Israel’s supporters in America to vote for him and not for Barack Obama. Most American Jews lean left and will vote for Obama, but Romney would like to keep the percentage as low as he can, because it just might tip the balance in a critical swing state like Florida.” Lest there be any confusion that Walt is conflating the Israel lobby with American Jews, after referring to Obama and Romney tailoring their policies “with the lobby’s clout in mind,” he spends the rest of the piece talking not about ways in which “the lobby” punishes politicians who deviate from the party line by raising money for their opponents or running ads in their districts, but about how presidents Carter and Bush 41 saw their percentages of Jewish votes drop after pressuring or confronting Israel. He is not telling a story about what he has previously defined as the Israel lobby, but is telling a story about American Jews that he is calling a story about the Israel lobby.
Remember this next time someone claims that Mearsheimer and Walt are not indicting all American Jews with their theory, or are only focusing on a finite and defined set of groups. Walt’s defenders here will claim that because he and Mearsheimer argue that the Israel lobby influences public opinion, this is an extension of that argument, and that by pandering to the Israel lobby Romney and Obama know that they will affect how American Jews vote. Unfortunately, that argument won’t fly in this case. There is simply no way around the fact that Walt defines all American Jewish voters as “the Israel lobby” in his latest piece, and when he indicts Romney for pandering to the Israel lobby he means that Romney is pandering to Jewish voters. There is nothing wrong with pointing out what Romney is doing, but Walt is going to have a difficult time going forward explaining that when he references the Israel lobby, he is talking about “Zionists” or “pro-Israel groups” rather than Jews.
July 30, 2012 § 4 Comments
With Mitt Romney visiting Israel this weekend and giving speeches and making statements about his policy toward Israel, it seems like a good time to think about how his approach as president would be different from what we have seen under President Obama. Romney’s Jewish supporters, noting that a significant number of American Jews appear to be uncomfortable or disappointed with the way that Obama has interacted with Israel, have been pushing the notion that there will be a sea change if Romney is in office, and Romney himself has played up this idea as well. So, if Romney is sitting in the Oval Office come January 20, what can we expect to change?
The first big issue is military and intelligence cooperation and assistance, and almost nobody disputes the fact that these are at an all time high under Obama. Whether it be funding for Iron Dome, coordination on Stuxnet and other measures meant to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program, or the sale of advanced weaponry, Israel and the U.S. enjoy a closer relationship now than at any other time in the last 60 years. Indeed, last year Ehud Barak remarked, “I can hardly remember a better period of support, American support and backing and cooperation and similar strategic understanding of events around us than what we have right now.” This type of cooperation is sure to continue should Romney win in November.
Another big policy area is the peace process. Despite concerns over whether Romney supports a two state solution, which largely stem from the backing he is receiving from Palestinian state opponent Sheldon Adelson, I find it difficult to imagine that Romney will buck the strong bipartisan consensus and actually come out in favor of the rightwing one state solution favored by Joe Walsh and Danny Danon. Bibi Netanyahu himself is on record as being in favor of a Palestinian state, and even if you think this is mere lip service, it demonstrates just how far outside the mainstream abandoning the two state solution would place Romney. On the issue of whether he would push the Israelis on settlements and making concessions to the Palestinians, my guess is that Romney will occupy the same position as George W. Bush, which is to have an official policy against continued Israeli settlement expansion but to do nothing about it in practice. Obama famously pushed the Israelis on the issue of settlements earlier in his term, but has since backed off either due to a realization that his initial strategy was a bad one or in order to calm Jewish voters who were uncomfortable with his pressuring Israel but not the Palestinians, or perhaps a little bit of both. Whatever the case, Romney will likely not make the peace process a priority, but it is an open question as to whether a second term Obama would make a strong effort to force the two parties into a peace deal, and my own view is that he is going to let it drop. Between getting burned once and announcing a pivot toward Asia, I think that Obama’s heavy involvement in the peace process is a thing of the past.
Romney’s visit to Israel raised two other issues of American policy after he issued statements addressing each, and these are American support for a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran and moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. On the Iran issue, there was initially some confusion as to whether Romney would commit U.S. troops after the fact were Israel to strike Iran, but Romney himself made clear in an interview in Ha’aretz that he and Obama hold the same position on Iran, saying, “President Obama has said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. I feel a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. The term ‘unacceptable’ continues to have a meaning: It suggests that all options will be employed to prevent that outcome.” While Romney has criticized Obama over his Iran policy and suggested that he would be more forceful with the Iranian regime, his actual policy is identical when it comes to tactics – namely, increased sanctions and keeping the military option on the table. Where the two men differ is over what constitutes the precise red line; for Obama it is Iran developing a nuclear weapon, while for Romney it is the attainment of nuclear capability.
Another place where Romney drew a clear distinction with Obama over the past two days was on the embassy question, but it is the emptiest of distinctions. Like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him, Romney pledged to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, and like Bush and Clinton before him, it is a virtual guarantee that should Romney be elected the embassy will remain right where it is. Since Jerusalem’s status is an issue to be negotiated under an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, no American government will actually move the embassy to Jerusalem so as to not act in a prejudicial way. Anyone who thinks otherwise simply knows very little about the politics of Israel in the U.S., and Romney himself knows full well that calling for the embassy to be moved is low hanging political fruit that will never see the light of day once he is in office.
Romney famously said earlier this year that he would do the opposite of what Obama has done on Israel, but this will plainly not be the case. When it comes to hard policy, the differences between the two men are negligible at best. The one place where Romney may differ from Obama is that, as pointed out in this excellent Aaron David Miller column, Obama does not seem to connect with Israel on an emotional level and this impacts the way he speaks about it and the way American Jews perceive Obama on the issue. Romney will not have this same problem, and while I think that looking at actual policies is the best way to judge the two on the Israel question, I understand the concerns that some Jewish voters have when it comes to Obama’s rhetoric. This divide on how one views Obama on Israel was captured in an instructive Twitter exchange yesterday between CFR’s Steven Cook (who is a friend and recent co-author) and Emergency Committee For Israel executive director Noah Pollak. After Pollak referenced “Obama’s abuse of Israel,” Steven queried how Iron Dome, Stuxnet, sanctions on Iran, and ensuring Israel’s qualitative military edge could be considered abuse. Pollak’s response was, “Diplomatic ambushes, tirade @ UNSC, joining HRC, WH snubs, going nuclear on settlements, isolating Isr to please Erdogan.” The bottom line here is that Obama supporters are convinced that he could not possibly be any more pro-Israel, and Romney supporters are convinced that Obama is anything but and that a President Romney would usher in a massive shift in Israel policy. From where I am standing, it seems pretty clear that, rhetoric aside, there is little daylight between the two when it comes to actual policies on Israel with the limited exception of what threshold will trigger military action against Iran, and that no matter who our next president is, we are bound to have almost complete continuity on policy toward Israel.