Thanks to Joshua Landis and M.J. Rosenberg for this piece of good news from Barack Obama’s appearance on 60 Minutes last night. When asked by Steve Croft whether he would talk to Syria or Iran, Obama answered with an unequivocal affirmative:
KROFT: Would you talk to Iran or Syria?
OBAMA: Yes. I think that the notion that this administration has — that not talking to our enemies is effective punishment — is wrong. It flies in the face of our experiences during the Cold War. Ronald Reagan understood that it may be an evil empire, but it’s worthwhile for us to periodically meet to see are there areas of common interest. And most importantly, those conversations allow the possibility that our ideas and our values gain greater exposure in these countries. The fact of the matter is that Iran currently is governed by an oppressive regime, one that I think is a threat to the region and to our allies, but there are a lot of people in Iran who potentially would like to be part of this broader community of nations. For us not to be in a conversation with them doesn’t make sense. Now I don’t think that that conversation should be conditioned on our accepting their support of terrorism or their building nuclear capacity and potentially sparking an arms race in the Middle East, any more than our conversations with the Kremlin presumed that we approved of their aggression around the world. You know, we can have a robust strategy of blocking and containing aggressive actions by hostile or rogue states, but still open up the possibility that over time those relationships may evolve and they may change. And there may be opportunities for us to resolve some of our differences, not all of them, but some of them in a constructive way.
Obama also responds critically when asked if he would use force against Iran’s nuclear program:
KROFT: Would you advocate the use of military force to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons?
OBAMA: I think we should keep all options on the table, but I think that our first step should be a much more aggressive approach to diplomacy than we’ve displayed thus far.
M.J. was suitably impressed by Obama’s candor:
No saber rattling. No boilerplate rhetoric about how bad Ahmedenijad or Assad is. No BS. He has thus differentiated himself from Edwards and Clinton on the biggest threat America faces (the threat of war with Iran). For those who do not follow the politics of the Middle East closely, let me tell you that Obama’s statement was courageous and will cost him with the DLC-Neocon wing of the Democratic party. But he did it anyway. He simply endorsed a position that is right for America, right for Israel, and right for the entire world. This guy is the real deal and, it now appears, courageous. When was the last time a major candidate for President took a stand this brave and this right? I’m asking because, frankly, I don’t remember any.
Speaking as a Washington insider, he knows how presidential campaigns are run, how they try to get away with the least amount of substance possible until the last minute possible so as not to alienate any potential supporters.
In fact, after hearing some of Obama’s sound bytes in on-air interviews I was beginning to think that he was guilty of the same trepidatious behavior. But I agree with M.J. that this took some moxie.
And speaking as a Jewish Washington insider (having toiled in the fields while working for AIPAC), M.J. understands what presidential candidates can and cannot say if they want AIPAC support. And Obama, while possibly not ending his chance for such support, has put it in jeopardy. And he has done so deliberately and knowingly. It takes a certain amount of courage and a certain amount of throwing caution to the winds to say what he has said so early in a campaign.
There’s an interesting factor here no one has mentioned. One of Obama’s most important and wealthiest supporters is George Soros. Soros has participated in a series of meetings with Jewish Mideast peace supporters to explore the possibility of creating a a Jewish lobbying group which would compete with AIPAC by advancing a pro-peace agenda. I’m guessing that Obama has coordinated his Mideast statements with Soros and that the latter is giving him a certain amount of cover. There’s a lot an honest politician can say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if he has a wealthy progressive backing him. For one, he doesn’t have to worry about losing the millions that AIPAC donors give every election cycle to Democratic presidential candidates who toe the line. If I’m right about any of this, perhaps we can look forward to more refreshing statements from Sen. Obama as the campaign progresses.
We’ll certainly hear a reaction both from Clinton and AIPAC questioning Obama’s loyalty to a pro-Israel position and his fealty to the AIPAC “talking points.” That’s where progresive bloggers come in. We, especially the American Jews among us, can inoculate him to a certain extent from the counter-attacks expected from the the hard right pro-Israel crowd.
A criticism levelled against M.J. in the TPM comments thread noted that both Edwards and Clinton have also spoken out in favor of engaging Iran (but neither as far as I know have made any statements with regard to Syria as Obama has). Equally important to note another commenter there who responded with the actual quotations from her statement on this subject at the NYC AIPAC dinner. When you examine them more carefully, you see (and perhaps they were couched so dismissively because of the highly suspicious AIPAC audience before whom she delivered these remarks) they are not as strong an endorsement of diplomacy as others claim them to be:
“I have advocated engagement with our enemies and Israel’s enemies because I want to understand better what we can do to defeat those who are aiming their hatred, their extremism and their weapons at us,” Clinton told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee dinner in New York…”I also want to send a message — if we ever do have to take more drastic action — to the rest of the world that we exhausted all possibilities because we need friends and allies to stand with us as we stand with Israel in this long war against terrorism and extremism,”
Rather than boasting about how progressive a statement this is as an American Prospect blogger has, I’d describe it as Machiavellian words from someone prepared, and perhaps intending, to go to war–but who first wants to be able to tell the world she tried, she really tried before she launched the bombs.
And even if one concedes Clinton’s notion of realpolitik compelled her to speak so aggressively given she was addressing the red meat AIPAC crowd, I’m just not prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt that there’s really a dove lurking under her wolf’s clothing.
Returning to Obama’s comment, as another TPM commenter notes, anything said at this stage of a campaign comes nowhere close to being a statement of what the candidate will actually do once in office. But it is important as a statement of intent. And thus it is heartening.
The full 60 Minutes transcript is here.