McCain advisors: No to Syria talks, little interest in Middle East peace process

LEESBURG, Va. (JTA)—A McCain administration would discourage Israeli-Syrian peace talks and refrain from actively engaging in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

That was the message delivered over the weekend by two McCain advisers—Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Richard Williamson, the Bush administration’s special envoy to Sudan—during a retreat hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy at the Lansdowne Resort in rural Virginia.

One of Barack Obama’s representatives—Richard Danzig, a Clinton administration Navy secretary—said the Democratic presidential candidate would take the opposite approach on both issues.

In an interview with the Atlantic magazine over the summer, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) insisted that in his presidency he would serve as the chief negotiator in the peace process. But at the retreat, Boot said pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian deal would not be a top priority in a McCain administration, adding that as many as 30 crises across the globe require more urgent attention.

Boot called the Bush administration’s renewed efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian talks a mistake.
He also cast Israel’s talks with Syria as betraying the stake that the United States has invested in Lebanon’s fragile democracy.

“John McCain is not going to betray the lawfully elected government of Lebanon,” Boot said.

Williamson was slightly more nuanced in addressing the issue of how the message would be sent.

“Israel should not be dictated to in dealing with Syria or dealing with Lebanon,” he said, addressing Israeli and some pro-Israel resentment in recent years at pressure by the Bush administration to stifle such negotiations. “Hopefully as friends they will listen to us.”

That Williamson was endorsing such views at all signified how closely the McCain campaign has allied itself with neo-conservatives. A veteran of the Reagan and first Bush administrations, Williamson in other circumstances would be more closely identified with Republican “realists” who have vociferously eschewed the grand claims of neo-conservatives to a new American empire.

Yet here he was echoing their talking points on several fronts.

McCain until the last year or so has kept feet in both the realist and neo-conservative camps. The session at Lansdowne appeared to suggest that the Republican presidential nominee has chosen sides, opting for policies backed by the outgoing Bush administration and its neo-conservative foreign policy architects.

Both McCain advisers insisted, however, that their candidate was synthesizing the two camps as a “realistic idealist.”

McCain would be a “leader who will press for more liberal democratic change ” and “is realistic about the prospects of diplomacy and just as importantly its limits,” said Boot, echoing what has become the twin walking and talking points of neo-conservatism: a muscular foreign policy and an affinity for promoting democracy.

Surrogates for Obama, an Illinois senator, re-emphasized their commitment to stepping up U.S. diplomatic efforts. Danzig said an Obama administration would revive the idea of a special envoy for pursuing a peace deal.

The “appropriate level of presidential engagement requires that the United States designate someone whose energies are predominantly allocated to this,” Danzig said.

Someone like Tony Blair, the former British prime minister now leading efforts to build a Palestinian civil society, might fit the bill, he added.

Surrogates from both campaigns appeared to agree on the need to further isolate Iran until it stands down from its suspected nuclear weapons program. Each side emphasized that it would keep the military option on the table and enhance sanctions.

It was clear that each campaign had devoted a great deal of attention to the issue. Officials from both campaigns signed on to a Washington Institute for Near East Policy policy paper this summer that called for closer U.S.-Israel coordination on Iran, borne out of concerns that Israel’s leadership was getting closer to contemplating the option of a strike.

Williamson and Richard Clarke, the former top anti-terrorism official in both the Clinton and current Bush administrations who spoke for Obama, described the near impossibility of taking out a weapons program that is believed to be diffuse and hidden in population centers. Clarke added the possibility of covert action against Iran, without details—a first for either campaign.

The sole difference was over Obama’s pledge not to count out a meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president who has denied the Holocaust and rejected the legitimacy of Israel’s existence.

“What could such a meeting possibly accomplish?” Boot challenged.

Danzig replied that it would make it easier for Obama to rally worldwide support for sanctions.

“These things require a community of nations,” he said.

Danzig cast Obama’s emphasis on sanctions and diplomacy in terms of Israel’s security, a pitch tuned to the Washington Institute’s pro-Israel orientation.

“The threats and dangers are more substantial than they were eight years ago,” he said.

McCain’s advisers attempted to deflect comparisons between McCain and Bush. In trying to turn such comparisons against the Obama campaign, Boot noted that eight years ago he favored “another presidential candidate with not much experience in national security policy”—George W. Bush—“and we’ve seen the implications.”

The Washington Institute crowd, hawkish in its predilections and likelier to favor McCain’s foreign policy, would nonetheless only allow the McCain surrogates to take the character and experience issue so far.

Fred Lafer, the institute’s president emeritus, pressed Boot on why McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a foreign policy novice, as his running mate if he was committed to national security.

Boot said “she has as much” foreign policy experience as Obama, prompting cries of “No!” and “what?”

Defending Identity

Natan Sharansky’s previous book, “The Case for Democracy,” changed the world. It inspired a generation of U.S. policymakers and influenced President GeorgeW. Bush in his decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein.

So when Sharansky’s second book, “Defending Identity,” came out this month, I thought I’d better read it, quick.

I did last Saturday, so that by Sunday, I could sit down with Sharansky and ask him about it.

I met Sharansky at his hotel on the Westside. The former deputy prime minister of Israel, who is now director of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, had just arrived from Israel and was napping when I knocked on his door. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, grabbed my hand and pulled me inside. Sharansky is half my height and twice as commanding, a pierogi body with basset hound eyes.

A mutual friend offers to call down for coffee.

“Yes,” Sharansky says, “a cappuccino.”

That a man who spent nine years in a Soviet gulag might one day find himself in a sumptuous hotel room, specifying a foamy hot coffee drink, vindicates, if not God’s eternal justice, then at least Her dark sense of humor. And Sharansky’s. He takes a moment to tell how he once excused himself from wearing a tie to meet then-President Bill Clinton.

“I told him, Mr. President, in Israel we have a law. Anyone who spends nine years in the Soviet gulag doesn’t have to wear a tie. And he said, ‘That makes sense.’

“So, later, Putin says to me, ‘Why no tie? Is that a protest?’ And I say, ‘No. First, in Israel we have a law that anyone who spends nine years in the Soviet gulag doesn’t have to wear a tie. And besides that, the president of the United States said it was OK.'”

Sharansky is awake now, and it’s time to talk identity.

In “Defending Identity,” Sharansky argues against the idea, popular among some of the intelligentsia and on many college campuses, that a strong sense of identity among social groups is the source of friction and war. As Sharansky explains “post-identity” thinking: “Identity causes war; war is evil; therefore, identity is evil.”

Sharansky’s book is an extended argument against that premise. Although identity can be “used destructively,” he writes, it is also a force for good.

Strong identities, Sharansky argues, “are as valuable to a well-functioning society as they are to secure and committed well-functioning individuals. Just as the advance of democracy is critical to securing international peace and stability, so, too, is cultivating strong identities.”

Sharansky co-authored the book with Shira Wolosky Weiss. But the source of its deepest insights are drawn from Sharansky’s own life.

“I have been extremely lucky — twice lucky in fact,” Sharansky writes. “I was deprived of both identity and freedom, and then I discovered them both simultaneously.”

The first third of Sharansky’s life was spent as a loyal Soviet citizen in a state that had outlawed and crushed expressions of cultural and religious identity. “The only thing Jewish in my life,” he writes, “was anti-Semitism.”

The Six-Day War awakened Sharansky, as it did so many others, to his Jewish identity. “I started realizing I was part of a unique history … that carried a unique message of community, liberty and hope.”

In 1978, five years after Sharansky applied for a visa to immigrate to Israel, the promising mathematician was arrested by the Soviets, tried for treason and spying and sent to the gulag. He spent 16 months in prison and nine years in a forced labor camp in Siberia. Throughout this ordeal, Sharansky became both leader and symbol of the Jewish immigration movement and the Soviet dissident movement.

A massive international protest on behalf of all Soviet dissidents led to Sharansky’s release in 1986. Upon his release, he flew to Israel, reunited with his wife, Avital, and has lived the third part of his life as an activist, writer and politician.

It was, Sharansky writes, his deep sense of identity that enabled him to fight the Soviet empire.

“I discovered that only by embracing who I am … could I also stand with others,” he writes. “When Jews abandon identity in pursuit of universal freedom, they end up with neither. Yet when they embrace identity in the name of freedom, as Soviet Jews did in the 1970s, they end up securing both.”

While Sharansky’s biography makes his case especially compelling, others have made the same point. Consider the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, in which all the people spoke the same language and therefore couldn’t see their own sinfulness. Judaism has long held to the now-subversive belief that difference needn’t be divisive. Most recently, the chief rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, in “The Dignity of Difference,” wrote that “universalism can also be deeply threatening.”

Where Sharansky goes further is in alloying identity with democracy. When I point out to him that Muslim extremists don’t suffer from a lack of identity, he leaps forward in his chair.

“Exactly!” he says. “Their identity is not bad; what is bad is their lack of devotion to democracy.”

In that sense, this book on identity follows naturally Sharansky’s now-classic one on democracy.

“Identity, if it is not connected to democracy, it becomes fundamentalist, totalitarian,” he says. “But freedom and democracy without identity means freedom becomes decadent, powerless, meaningless, without any commitment. Exactly what John Lennon said. Let’s have a world in which there would be nothing to fight for. And then a small group, with a strong identity and without any obligations to democracy, can destroy this wonderful world of freedom.”

I am finding myself nodding as one of my heroes — Sharansky — trashes another — John Lennon. But if Lennon sang — with a bit of irony — about utopia, Sharansky is explaining the real world.

“The free world is in a big, big danger,” he says, “because we are in a conflict with fundamentalists, and what they are saying is they have something to fight for, and we don’t.”

Bush’s ‘neocons’: far from the best and the brightest

A significant shift in American political history occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s when a group of “Cold War intellectuals,” a number of whom were Jewish, defected from the liberal mainstream of the Democratic Party.

Alienated by the anti-war movement and by what they saw as ambivalence on the Democratic left about Israel’s security, they first coalesced around the presidential candidacy of centrist Democrat Henry “Scoop” Jackson in 1972.

Most eventually moved over to the Republican Party under President Richard Nixon and his foreign policy alter ego, Henry Kissinger. Among them were Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and Ben Wattenberg. Some of today’s neocons, including Paul Wolfowitz, Eliot Abrams and Douglas Feith got their start with the Jackson team.

While they were small in number, their intellectual influence was substantial. Their defection from the Democrats helped stamp the post-Vietnam Democratic Party as “soft on defense” and added heft to Nixon’s administration. (This came despite Nixon’s known antipathy to Jews, so vividly revealed later in the White House tapes.) Nixon’s highly pragmatic foreign policy led to major agreements with the Soviet Union and a historic opening to the People’s Republic of China. He was supportive of Israel during the traumatic 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Cold War intellectuals felt vindicated.

Fast forward to 2007, and we see what has happened to this neoconservative movement. We find Bill Kristol, Irving Kristol’s son and editor of the Weekly Standard; Paul Wolfowitz, just ousted from the World Bank and safely landed at the American Enterprise Institute; Eliot Abrams, back in government after his deep involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal; and Douglas Feith, one of the architects of the Iraq war. Scooter Libby, just released from his prison destiny by an indulgent president, is a member in good standing. They have a friend and ally in Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Today’s neocons are far from the best and the brightest.

They are largely amateur armchair warriors given to cheap rhetoric and bombast. They toss around “regime change” as if governments will fall when they snap their fingers. While the Cold War intellectuals may have been arrogant, they were right about some important things. In particular, they championed the restoration of a bipartisan Cold War consensus that had fractured under the strain of the Vietnam War and challenged Democrats to avoid turning opposition to the war into opposition to a strong national defense. Today’s neocons, by contrast, have managed to be wrong about, basically, everything: that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that we would be greeted as liberators in Iraq, that the war would cost American taxpayers not a dime and that the struggle would be over in months.

Unlike the proudly realistic Cold War intellectuals, the neocons are idealists, scorning those who question their ideas as “reality based.” They see Israel as a key part of their global plan, both helping America in the Middle East (where, conveniently, oil is plentiful), and guaranteeing Israel’s security under an umbrella of unchecked, unilateral American power. They ignore Israel’s need to negotiate complex arrangements to survive in a very tough neighborhood, while leaning on its big brother in Washington.

Undeterred by the failure of the Iraq war they helped create, the neocons are now trying to drag the United States and Israel into a war with Iran, and potentially into a global war with much of the Islamic world. Sen. Lieberman says that Iran has already started the war with the United States by funding Hezbollah in Lebanon and by allegedly supporting insurgents in Iraq, all the while proclaiming — against all evidence — the success of the surge in Iraq. Lieberman is talking up the value of bombing Iran. The hallmarks of the contemporary neocons are an indifference to the facts on the ground combined with a belligerent and bellicose stance toward the world. How did it come to this?

The strength of the original neoconservative movement was pragmatism in contrast to what they perceived as the idealistic thinking of the peace movement. They called Democrats naive on foreign policy and charged that they neither appreciated the balance of power in world affairs nor understood the threat of force as an alternative to the use of force. They admired Nixon’s ability to play Russia against China and to project enough force to convince adversaries to negotiate. This was a lesson that Democratic president Bill Clinton applied successfully in stopping the genocide in Bosnia.

But while the Democrats moved back toward the center on foreign policy, the neocons became more radical. Even in the beginning, some were devoted to blocking détente with the Soviet Union and ratcheting up the Soviet threat beyond what the facts warranted. Some joined the first Bush administration, where they argued that at the conclusion of the Gulf War, the president should have taken Baghdad and overthrown Saddam Hussein. Unlike the first President Bush, they refused to consider the impact on regional stability or the balance of power of the ouster of Saddam’s regime. It never mattered to them that the United States was using Saddam to contain Iran. On the outs with the president, who did not favor their aggressive views, they bided their time in conservative think tanks during the Clinton years. They became even more adept at exaggerating global threats, from Iraq to the Islamic world as a whole.

Their ideas grew more and more expansive, until their Project for a New American Century unveiled a grand vision of a dominant America astride a passive world, dictating terms to one and all, taking resources as it wished. All they needed was a president who would back their plan, despite its obvious and near-lunatic flaws. With the accession of George W. Bush, and more importantly, Dick Cheney, in 2001, they finally had leaders whose arrogance matched their vision.

And so they remain in the good graces of Bush and Cheney, despite the tatters they have all made of American foreign policy. As long as Cheney remains the dominant force in the administration, the neocons can survive the political implosion of the White House. In fact, the president risked substantial political fallout to short-circuit the legal process and keep Cheney’s aide Libby out of jail.