Florida is the largest of the so-called “battleground states,” and a loss by the president of 5-10% of his 2008 Jewish votes in Florida could prove sufficient to tilt the state to Mitt Romney. As a consequence, the Obama administration has been on something of a charm offensive towards the Jewish community for most of the year.
Some of that charm, however, may be wearing thin. In June, Israel was not invited to a U.S. State Department-sponsored Global Counterterrorism Forum held in Istanbul, Turkey, to avoid giving offense to the Turkish hosts. That omission made a mockery of the conference. No country in the world has as much experience dealing with terrorism as Israel, and its expertise is routinely sought by nations around the globe. In addition, the administration’s willingness to kow-tow to Muslim countries and grant Turkey a veto over the participants will only encourage Turkey and other Islamist countries to believe that they can extract a high price from the United States for any cooperation they may render.
To add insult to injury, at a second meeting of the same group a month-later in Madrid (i.e., no longer on Muslim soil), U.S. Undersecretary of State Maria Otero read a list of countries that have been the victims of terror. Curiously, Israel was not mentioned on that list, though no country in the world has been the victim of as many terrorist attacks as Israel. The 1,500 Israelis killed in terrorist attacks over the past 12 years would be on a per capita basis the equivalent of 65,000 Americans dead and 300,000 injured, as former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar pointed out. Otero’s omission was both glaring and deliberate.
OF FAR GREATER MOMENT is the Obama administration’s approach to Iran. The administration continues to tout the effectiveness of its sanctions regime – a regime forced upon it by Congress only after three years of futile efforts to “engage” Iran in discussion. While the sanctions are undoubtedly causing Iranians ever more economic discomfort and disrupting Iranian oil production, as its storage capacity for unsold oil is being used up, there is no evidence to date that they have slowed down Iran’s push for nuclear weapons “one iota,” in Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu’s words this week.
Nor has the Iranian regime shown any greater willingness to compromise as a result of the sanctions. The P5+1 talks with Iran have predictably ended with no movement and no indications from Iran of any new flexibility. The Iranians want nuclear weapons and are willing to pay a high price to obtain them, especially absent a credible threat of American military action. Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton estimates that for sanctions to have changed the course of Iranian policy, they would have had to start over a decade ago, and have enjoyed the active cooperation of Russia and China, something that is absent even today. Coupled with assistance to the Iranian opposition, they also might have destabilized the country, but that assistance was never forthcoming under either the Bush II or Obama administrations.
Moreover, there is growing evidence that the Obama administration is not fully serious about imposing the toughest possible sanctions. The evidence begins with the fact that the initiative for the current sanctions came entirely from Congress and even some European countries, like France. The second piece of evidence is the granting of numerous exemptions to American businesses doing business with Iran – over 1,000 to date. To be effective, sanctions must be airtight, and that obviously means that companies doing business with Iran will also suffer a loss of business. But the Obama administration has been unable to make peace with this obvious fact, hence the numerous exemptions. Most notably, the administration has exempted the oil purchases of both China and India – Iran’s two largest customers – from the sanctions regime (though both have “voluntarily” reduced their purchases). Most recently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has led efforts to exempt American insurers from new legislation that would have included insurers in the sanctions. It is highly unlikely that he would have done so in an election year without the acquiescence of the president.
Finally, the administration has given the Iranians every indication that they do not have to fear the full might of the American military. Leading officials, from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta down, have repeatedly insisted that even a sustained American attack could set back Iran’s nuclear program no more than one to three years. That, says Ret. Gen. Jack Keane, former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, is more an indication that “this administration lacks any intention, ever, of attacking Iran.” As much as it claims it will never allow Iran to get a bomb, Keane continues, “I don’t believe it, the Israelis don’t believe it, and the Iranians don’t believe it.”
Keane argues that a full-scale American attack could set back Iran as much as five years. But even that understates the impact of an attack. Once the United States had made clear its intention to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, Supreme Leader Khamenei would have to be insane to restart the program only to provoke another attack. And if America followed the advice that former CIA Director James Woolsey shared with me a few months back to cut off the head of the Iranian regime by striking hard at the assets of the Revolutionary Guard, Khamenei would be faced with the stark choice between retaining power or giving up his nuclear ambitions.
WORSE FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF PRESIDENT OBAMA, important voices have begun to speak out and acknowledge what is well-known: he is not that “into” Israel. Veteran State Department peace processor Aaron David Miller wrote in Foreign Policy last week that Obama “really is different” from his immediate predecessors, Clinton and George W. Bush, in that he “isn’t in love with the idea of Israel. . . He just doesn’t buy the ‘tiny state living on the knife’s edge with the dark past’ argument – or at least it doesn’t come through in emotionally resonant terms.” According to Miller, Obama “is more like Jimmy Carter minus the biblical interest or attachment.” He concludes his appraisal: “[O]n the issue of a peace settlement, Obama’s views are much closer to the Palestinians than to Israel.”
Less explicit, but no less significant, is the decision of Miller’s former State Department boss Dennis Ross to refrain from all political activity this election season. In 2008, Ross played a lead role kashering Obama for Jewish voters and was rewarded with senior positions in the National Security Council. His refusal to reprise that role again this year, after leaving the administration, has not gone unnoticed.
OBAMA’S COOLNESS TO ISRAEL provides Romney with an important political wedge issue, not just with American Jews, but with American Christians, particularly evangelicals, as well. Walter Russell Mead, in a blog post at Via Meadia written prior to Romney’s Sunday speech from Yerushalayim, noted that in adopting pro-Israel stands, American politicians are more likely to be courting non-Jewish votes than Jewish ones.
A strong pro-Israel stand, Mead argues, is a dog-whistle communication of “your commitment to American exceptionalism and to American global leadership. . . Voters who identify strongly with Israel and want the U.S. to support it tend to favor a strong U.S. national defense and forward leaning foreign policy. . . The perception that President Obama is cool to Israel strengthens [voters’] suspicion that he is somehow cool toward traditional American values.” It has not escaped the attention of such voters that those who hate Israel almost inevitably hate the United States as well.
Mead further points out that support for Israel is one of the crucial intersections between Romney’s Mormonism – which still strikes many voters as weird – and mainstream American thinking. The Mormons have long believed in the importance of Jews returning to Zion. As early as 1841, the Mormon elder Orson Hyde was dispatched to Yerushalayim to offer a prayer to G-d to “inspire kings and the powers of the earth [to help] restore the kingdom unto Israel.” Since the writings of Pilgrim leader Cotton Mather, American theological thought has been suffused with predictions of the return of the Jews to Eretz Yisroel. And that return has been viewed as confirming Americans’ view of “America as an exceptional nation with a unique world mission.”
Romney’s speech to the Jerusalem Foundation on Tisha B’Av afternoon seemed carefully crafted with all of Mead’s admonitions in mind. He consistently stressed that the ties between Israel and the United States are based on shared values, not just the national security interests of the United States (while he also acknowledged the latter). “Our alliance runs deeper than the designs of strategy or the weighing of interests,” he intoned. “The story of how America – a nation still so new to the world by the standards of this ancient region – rose up to become the dear friend of the people of Israel is among the finest and most hopeful in our nation’s history. . . Israel and America are in many respects reflections of one another. . . . By history and by conviction, our two countries are bound together.” And elsewhere: “[The alliance between the State of Israel and the United States of America] . . . is a force for good in the world. America’s support of Israel should make every American proud.”
In an interview with Ha’aretz, Romney expressed his conviction that America must retain world leadership: “[T]his coming century must remain an American century. . . By that I mean that America should maintain the moral, economic and military leadership that will allow it to remain the leader of the free world and ensure that the free world remains the leader of the entire world.” And he linked a free and strong Israel to a free and strong America.
One could quibble with some elements of the speech. I would have preferred a more explicit statement from Romney that he will employ America’s military to prevent a nuclear Iran, inimical to American and world interests, from coming into being, and not just expressions of support for Israel if it acts to defend itself. Only the United States can mount a sustained air campaign. Only the United States can thoroughly eradicate Iran’s existing program. Only the United States can destroy the key assets of the Revolutionary Guard and thereby speed the demise of the regime of the mullah’s. And only the United States can confidently assure the Iranians, “We’ll be back if you start again.”
But if Romney does prevail in November, his visit to Israel this week may well be viewed as a crucial turning point.