Bomb-Iran Update: More on Obama at AIPAC


1) The 'oddity' of the AIPAC setting. After my dispatch yesterday on Barack Obama's appearance at AIPAC, I have received several notes in the following vein:

[quoting me] "I can't think of another situation where an American president, speaking to an American audience on American soil, would find it necessary or dignified to plead his bona fides in a similar way. "

You write a thoughtful piece, but that line made me do a double take... politicians, especially when campaigning, spend approximately 95% of their time pleading with American audiences, in America, of their "bona fides" for office - and more specifically, if they are talking to farmers, they exaggerate/make-up whatever they have done to please farmers, etc etc.

The uncomfortable counter question I have for you is, in this specific instance - why the incredulity at a politician describing his support of an issue that pertains to the constituent group he is addressing?  What is different about this case than with other constituencies and what they find important?  I won't answer the question behind these questions, because frankly I don't believe it applies to you, but I did want to point out the awkward territory you (likely accidentally) might have walked into.

I appreciate the delicacy with which the reader raises an indelicate issue -- whether it's anti-Semitic to note the "oddity" of the AIPAC appearances by U.S. politicians. Let me be respectfully precise in reply.

Of course politicians aspiring to any office, including the presidency, plead for support from any number of groups. Even sitting presidents, with all their augustness and power, do something similar, especially at re-election time. Barack Obama would be crazy not to remind everyone in Michigan how he pushed for the auto-bailout bill -- or not to tell an AARP convention or a university crowd, respectively, about what he has done on Social Security and student-loan programs. I have seen Bill Clinton in front of black organizations, arguing that he had been their dependable tribune.

What I found odd about the AIPAC performance is that an American president was expected to make similar pleas about his reliability in support of another country's government. Let's imagine that Barack Obama's next big speech is to the National Council of La Raza. We would expect him to remind the crowd what he has done on immigration and affirmative-action issues, and to contrast that with the Republicans. We would not expect him to say that he has stood with the government of Mexico "every single time." Before a Korean-American group, we would expect him to talk about what he has done for peace on the Korean peninsula, for trade agreements, against the North Korean threat, and so on. We would never hear him say that his policies have been indistinguishable from the Republic of Korea's. So on down a list of foreign states.

My premise is that sovereign nations are sometimes bound by formal alliances (as the US is with its NATO partners, but is not with Israel), and other times by values, ethnicity, heritage, interests, and ideals (a combination of which usually binds the U.S. to Israel, and to many other states). But their interests are not identical -- a point that is obvious, and that Prime Minister Netanyahu himself made in his latest AIPAC speech. Therefore to me it seems undignified to put an American president in a setting where he is expected to proclaim "every single time" adherence to the interests and policies of another state. That is what I was remarking, and I should have taken the time to spell that out the first time. Moreover: whether or not it is undignified and objectionable, at a minimum it is odd. If anyone has examples of comparable situations, in which an American president is expected to make an "every single time" pledge about a foreign state, I will gladly share them.

2) 'Living with' a nuclear Iran. I mentioned yesterday Paul Pillar's Washington Monthly piece on what it would mean to coexist with a nuclear-capable Iran. Here is another worth reading, by Suzanne Maloney, from the American Prospect.

3) Not really a 'ritual.' A reader with experience both with AIPAC and its modern alternative, J Street, writes:

First, from my semi-trained eye AIPAC seems to be overextending itself this year. The conference is too large, the congressional ask is too aggressive, and the public attacks on the credibility of the President are too brazen. I've noticed that AIPAC is making serious headlines in the mainstream press, which I think is going to hurt them. It's going to be a lot harder to fight allegations that they are too powerful and exercise too much pull in Congress going forward from here.

I disagree, though, with your use of "ritual." If anything this year's AIPAC confab is breaking from much of the usual ritual. That's mostly due to its own rightward drift, and the shameless bellicosity of the ruling Israeli coalition and the American GOP. The Likud Knesset has lashed itself to the mast of the worldwide anti-Iran cause. I won't deny that AIPAC is too effective for its own good, but on balance this year's gathering is subject to, not creating, political reality.

4) 'Learning' from history. After the jump, a note on whether we are in danger of over-learning the "lessons" of the Iraq war.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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