Sometimes in leadership, you have to turn and confront your enemies head-on.
US presidential hopeful Barrack Obama did just that this week when, hours after winning an excruciatingly drawn-out battle for the Democratic nomination, he made a sharp turn to the right to face the Republican challenge in Florida.
Addressing the annual gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Council, Obama assured an audience of thousands that he would never allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.
It was an inescapable duty if he ever wants to see the inside of the Oval Office: Republican candidate John McCain had been making hay with the powerful pro-Israel lobby over Obama’s earlier promise to meet with Iranian leaders “without preconditions.”
Committed Zionists are right to be suspicious of the current regime in Iran. The Iranians provide support for the Lebanese resistance group, Hezbollah, Israel’s most successful enemy to date.
Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has expressed doubt about the Holocaust, and was widely quoted in Western media as calling for the Jewish homeland to be “wiped off the map.”
Later reports that the expression was a mistranslation, that Ahmadinejad had simply called for the current regime to be “wiped off the page of time” are likely to be of small comfort to that regime’s supporters.
A political campaign speech to a pro-Israel lobby group is no place to go into the complexities of the relations between Iran, Israel, and the United States.
In that venue, under those circumstances, the candidate’s one task was to prove to Israel’s American supporters that he is not, as John McCain has suggested, a weak-kneed appeaser.
You might say he had to appease them.
In December, the National Intelligence Estimate, a regular report prepared by all 16 of America’s security agencies, announced Iran had given up trying to acquire nuclear weapons in 2003.
According to a report in Time magazine, President Bush was visibly shaken at “the most assertive, surprising and rebellious act in the history of the US intelligence community.”
The article went on to suggest that the Iran nukes scare was another concoction of the Bush White House, a repeat of the lies that preceded the invasion of Iraq.
Surely Senator Obama is aware of the National Intelligence Estimate, and the unlikelihood that Iran’s uranium-enrichment program is designed to build bombs, rather than power plants.
But then his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Council had very little to do with foreign policy and very much to do with domestic politics.
In order to win the presidency, it is almost essential to win in Florida.
Older Jews with deep emotional ties to Zionism congregate in a handful of ridings around Miami.
Many have visited Israel, have seen the check-points in Jerusalem and the bombed-out cafes of Tel Aviv.
Most are educated, politically engaged, and have money to spend. Aspiring presidents ignore them at their peril.
To millions of Americans who are counting on Obama to change the face of politics, Tuesday’s Iran-baiting speech must have sounded disappointingly familiar. Like George Bush, John McCain, and Hilary Clinton, Obama vows to do “everything in (his) power” to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The promise has a particular resonance in American politics, where it is in the power of the president to unleash a nuclear holocaust that would destroy the world.
When Obama spoke of anything within his power, be certain that the assembly heard ‘military support for Israel.’ But is that what the candidate really meant?
The most likely answer to this question is, no, but it’s what he wanted them to think.
Nowhere in the speech did Obama withdraw his promise to meet with Iranian leaders, but he may have wanted to give the impression that he now favours a more aggressive posture.
A ‘strong stand’ against Israel’s enemies is always the right stand with the American Israel Public Affairs Council.
But is it the right stand for Israel, for America, or for peace?
If the US president never agrees to meet with Iranian leaders, if Israel doesn’t move toward compromise with the Palestinians, the Middle East will remain poised at the brink of a war that could leave Israel and Iran in the kind of shape Iraq is in today.
It’s in the nature of American presidential politics in the post-9/11 world that a candidate must be seen as strong on security.
But don’t expect to hear Obama’s saber rattle too often or too loudly during the campaign.
Fortunately his massive popular support comes from a much wider demographic than the pro-Israeli lobby; that vast and growing number of Americans who believe they were tricked into the Iraq war, and are determined not to get fooled again.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.