In a major address on Middle East policy Monday,
Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate for president, pledged
to maintain the Bush administration's hard line against Iran and expressed strong
skepticism about the ability of the current Palestinian leadership to reach
a peace accord with Israel.
McCain, who was speaking at the opening session of the annual policy conference
of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), called for
much tougher international sanctions against Iran, including a "severe
limit on Iranian imports of gasoline" and a "worldwide divestment
campaign" directed against companies doing business with the Islamic Republic,
as a means of forcing it to freeze its alleged nuclear weapons program.
And he ridiculed his likely Democratic rival in the November elections, Sen.
Barack Obama, for proposing unconditional talks with the Iranian leadership
on a range of issues, despite the fact that a new poll just released by the
Gallup organization found that nearly six in 10 U.S. voters, including nearly
half of all Republican respondents, believe a U.S.-Iranian summit would be a
"[W]e hear talk of a meeting with the Iranian leadership offered up as
if it were some sudden inspiration, a bold new idea that somehow nobody has
ever thought of before," he said. "Yet, it's hard to see what such
a summit with President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad would actually gain, except an
earful of anti-Semitic rants, and a worldwide audience for man who denies one
Holocaust and talks before frenzied crowds about starting another."
"Such a spectacle would harm Iranian moderates and dissidents," he
went on, "as the radicals and hardliners strengthen their position and
suddenly acquire the appearance of respectability."
McCain's remarks were the latest in an ongoing rhetorical tit-for-tat between
him and Obama, whose views on engaging Iran without conditions reflects the
views of much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, including even two of
his key policy advisers, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and neoconservative
thinker Robert Kagan. They have called for direct talks with Tehran if, for
no other reason, than to rally public and international opinion behind the U.S.
in any future confrontation.
But, in addressing AIPAC, the most powerful group of the collection of organizations
known as the "Israel Lobby," McCain appeared determined to show his
agreement with those in Israel and the U.S. Jewish community who believe that
a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable.
And, while he did not repeat the Bush administration's mantra that "all
options," including a military attack, should remain "on the table"
in dealing with the alleged threat, he suggested that he would resort to such
measures when he focused on the post-Holocaust promise of "never again."
"[W]hen we join in saying 'never again,' that is not a wish, a request,
or a plea to the enemies of Israel. It is a promise that the United States and
Israel will honor, against any enemy who cares to test us," he declared
to enthusiastic applause in the cavernous Washington Convention Center.
Indeed, just about half of his four-page speech was taken up by Iran, which
is also AIPAC's number one priority for the year.
After two and a half days of speeches, including by Obama and Sen. Hillary
Clinton, as well as the top leadership of both parties in Congress, as many
as 7,000 members of the group from all over the country will trek up to Capitol
Hill to press their lawmakers to quickly approve pending bills in Congress that,
if approved, would impose a new set of sweeping unilateral sanctions against
Iran and companies that do business with it.
AIPAC includes a wide range of national Jewish groups, such as Americans for
Peace Now and Israel Policy forum, that favor engagement by the U.S. –
directly or indirectly – with a number of Israel's regional foes, including
the Palestinian Hamas, Lebanon's Hezbollah, Syria, and even Iran itself.
However, its neoconservative leadership remains, for the most part, strongly
opposed to such a strategy – in defiance of the current Israeli government,
which has itself become increasingly involved in recent weeks in indirect talks
with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Damascus.
Indeed, aside from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself, both the plenary
and workshop speakers who will address the conference are overwhelmingly dominated
by hard-liners both from Israel – the only high-ranking invitee from the
Labor Party, former Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, for example, resigned
from the party just last week – and from the U.S.
Speaking immediately after McCain's address, former deputy assistant secretary
for the Near East Elizabeth Cheney – who is also Vice President Dick Cheney's
daughter – deplored Israel's failure "to do what was needed to be
done to Hezbollah" in the 2006 war and the Bush administration's failure
to enforce "red lines" against Iranian advances in the region. Washington,
she declared, must clearly state that if Iranians "don't give up diplomatically
[to UN demands that it freeze its nuclear program], they will face military
The anti-engagement tone of the conference contrasted strongly with the results
of a new poll released by Gallup Monday. Conducted May 19-21, the survey found
that two-thirds of the more than 1,000 respondents, including 79 percent of
Democrats, 48 percent of Republicans, and 70 percent of independents, favored
presidential meetings with "leaders of foreign countries considered enemies
of the United States."
And, while Iran leads the list of top U.S. enemies in the world, according
to the latest poll, 59 percent of respondents said it would be a good idea if
the U.S. president met with his counterpart.
"Basically, McCain seems to be stuck in the Bush administration's rut
of not finding a way to deal effectively with Iran," said Rand Beers, a
former senior counter-terrorism official at the State Department, who has served
under four U.S. presidents, including both Bush and his father.
"If you go through his policy proposals, he's basically arguing that Iran
ought to surrender before we are prepared to engage them, and, since it is highly
unlikely they are about to do that, and since it is unacceptable to John McCain
that Iran has nuclear weapons, we are walking down a path toward inevitable
conflict," he said.
While McCain devoted most of his remarks to Iran, he also showed little confidence
in the Annapolis process which, he said, awaits a "Palestinian leadership
willing and able to deliver peace." He also rejected engagement of Hamas,
insisting that "a peace process that places faith in terrorists can never
end in peace."
Indeed, the few words he devoted to the prospects for an Arab-Israeli peace
settlement – he omitted all mention of Turkey's ongoing mediation effort
between Syria and Israel – struck at least one expert, Jon Alterman, who
heads Middle East studies at the centrist Center for Strategic and International
Studies (CSIS), as both "shocking" and "strange" given the
fact that presidential candidates have historically devoted most of their remarks
to the AIPAC conference to that issue.
On Lebanon, McCain said peace would only be possible when there were "no
independent militias, no Hezbollah fighters, no weapons and equipment flowing
to Hezbollah." He said the U.S. should provide more economic assistance,
as well as military aid, to its central government in order to compete with
Syria and Iran there.
(Inter Press Service)