Barack Obama's June 4 speech to AIPAC received a favorable initial response, but the more one scrutinizes it, the more troubling it becomes. Here are some of the portions that raised questions, ranging from minor to major:
1. Obama began his speech (the video is here) with something not in his prepared text -- a reference to the need to remember and bring home "the three soldiers still held by Hezbollah." Perhaps it was simply a momentary slip, but it seems strange he did not realize that Gilad Shalit is held by Hamas in Gaza, not by Hezbollah in Lebanon, particularly since Shalit's status has been a key issue in the on-going negotiations over a Gaza truce. 2. More serious was his statement regarding Jerusalem -- and his reversal of it 24 hours later. In a paragraph beginning "Let me be clear," Obama told AIPAC that "Jerusalem must remain undivided." The statement produced a standing ovation. The next day, his campaign decided his statement had to be "clarified." It turned out that, by "undivided," Obama meant that, after the city was divided, there would be no checkpoints between the two sides. 3. Obama's statement to AIPAC that he supported "boycotting firms associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which has rightly been labeled a terrorist organization" was at best disingenuous. He did not acknowledge he had strenuously opposed the Kyl-Lieberman amendment last September, which called for precisely that policy. His support at AIPAC for boycotting the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was thus a little late. The month after Kyl-Lieberman passed the Senate (by 76-22, including 29 Democratic votes), the Bush administration designated the Guard as a terrorist organization and subjected it to sanctions under U.S. law and relevant U.N. resolutions, just as the Senate had urged.
At AIPAC, Obama was thus supporting something that (a) had already been done (b) many months before (c) over his objections.
4. The nature of Obama's opposition to Kyl-Lieberman turns out to be instructive. On October 11, 2007, he published a lengthy op-ed in a New Hampshire newspaper about it. In the op-ed, he acknowledged that "[w]e do need to tighten sanctions on the Iranian regime, particularly on Iran's Revolutionary Guard." But he argued "this must be done separately" from Kyl-Lieberman, which he asserted went "out of its way to draw connections between distinct threats" -- the Iraq war and Iran -- and constituted "saber-rattling." He proposed instead "tough and direct diplomacy" with Iran.
It is hard to conceive of a more misleading description of what the Kyl-Lieberman amendment involved.
Kyl-Lieberman set forth seven pages of direct quotations from official sources, including: (a) the September 2007 testimony of Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, (b) the August 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, (c) the September 2007 Report of the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq, (d) the September 2007 Defense Department report on Stability and Security in Iraq, and other sources.
Based on those sources, the Senate found that Iran was seeking to use the Guard "to turn the Shi'a militia extremists into a Hezbollah-like force" to "fight a proxy war" against the Iraqi government and the American-led forces in Iraq, and that it was a critical U.S. interest to prevent Iran from turning those extremists in Iraq into such a force. The Senate also concluded that the manner in which the U.S. "transitions and structures" its military presence in Iraq would have critical long-term consequences for the ability of Iran to threaten the security of the region and the prospects for democracy in the region.
In other words, Kyl-Lieberman did not go "out of its way to draw connections between distinct threats." Its findings established instead that Iran was fighting a proxy war against the United States and its interests in Iraq itself.
The Senate also made findings with respect to the efficacy of diplomacy as a solution to the proxy war. Kyl-Lieberman noted that Ambassador Crocker had held three rounds of talks with Iran on Iraq security since May 2007 and had "found no readiness on the Iranians' side at all to engage seriously on these issues." Crocker testified the Iranians "were interested simply in the appearance of discussions, of being seen to be at the table with the U.S. as an arbiter of Iraq's present and future."
In order to get Democratic votes for Kyl-Lieberman, the amendment was stripped of the provisions stating that: (1) U.S. policy should be "to combat, contain, and roll back the violent activities and destabilizing influence inside Iraq of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran," and (2) such a policy should be backed by the "prudent and calibrated use of all instruments of United States national power in Iraq." In addition, two new findings were added, noting that both Ambassador Crocker and Defense Secretary Gates had endorsed diplomatic and economic means as the preferable approach to dealing with the Iranian challenge.
In other words, not only was Kyl-Lieberman not "saber-rattling," but the faint sound of sabers that had once been in it had been explicitly removed. The only action item left in the amendment when it passed, by an overwhelming margin, was economic sanctions on the Iranian entity seeking to destabilize Iraq.
5. Obama also promised at AIPAC that "I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon -- everything." The statement produced another standing ovation, but the repetition of "everything" masked the fact that he was simply pledging a maximum personal effort, not making a presidential commitment to actually achieve that result.
His statement recalled the colloquy during the October 30, 2007 presidential debate, when Tim Russert asked each candidate the same question -- "would you pledge to the American people that Iran will not develop a nuclear bomb while you are president?" -- and Hillary Clinton repeated her talking point three times (emphasis added):
CLINTON: I intend to do everything I can to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.
RUSSERT: But you won't pledge?
CLINTON: I am pledging I will do everything I can to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.
RUSSERT: But, they may.
CLINTON: Well, you know, Tim, you asked me if I would pledge, and I have pledged that I will do everything I can to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.
Compare Obama's promise to do "everything in my power" (echoing Hillary Clinton's pledge to do "everything I can") with John McCain's statement of a national commitment in his February 7, 2008 speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee:
I intend to make unmistakably clear to Iran we will not permit a government that espouses the destruction of the State of Israel as its fondest wish and pledges undying enmity to the United States to possess the weapons to advance their malevolent ambitions.
6. As Obama gave his AIPAC speech, his positions over the past year had been effectively refuted: he had opposed the surge (which has succeeded), opposed imposing economic sanctions under Kyl-Lieberman (but now favored them seven months after they were implemented), and had drawn no adverse conclusions from the fact that Ambassador Crocker's three rounds of negotiations with Iran had been fruitless and counterproductive. Instead, Obama proposed future "tough and principled" negotiations with Iran that would be conducted while the centrifuges continued to whirl, together with a "redeployment" of troops from Iraq.
7. It was that part of Obama's AIPAC speech that was the most troublesome of all. Here is the process of diplomacy with Iran that Obama outlined at AIPAC:
We will open up lines of communication, build an agenda, coordinate closely with our allies, especially Israel, and evaluate the potential for progress. . . .
[W]e will present a clear choice [to Iran]. If you abandon your dangerous nuclear program, support for terror, and threats to Israel, there will be meaningful incentives -- including the lifting of sanctions, and political and economic integration with the international community. If you refuse, we will ratchet up the pressure.
In other words, in 2009 or later, after the lines have been opened, the agenda is built, the allies coordinated, the potential evaluated, the choice presented, the talks held, and the talks eventually fail, Obama will then start to "ratchet up the pressure" -- at just about the time Iran will have completed (or used) its nuclear weapon. But Obama will be able to say don't blame him, he did everything he could.
It is easy to understand why Obama's speech at AIPAC received an enthusiastic response. It reflected his trademark rhetoric: soaring language, an inspiring delivery, sounding great for as long as it lasts (or until one thinks more about it). But like his final primary speech ("this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow") and his speech on race ("I could no more disown . . ."), the rhetoric can be overblown, and its shelf life limited.
Rick Richman edits Jewish Current Issues. His articles on the "peace process" have appeared in American Thinker, The New York Sun and The Jewish Press, among other publications.