1) 'Too much loose talk.' Good for President Obama for saying this during his speech yesterday at AIPAC:
Already, there is too much loose talk of war. Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program. For the sake of Israel's security, America's security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster. Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition we have built. Now is the time to heed the timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt: Speak softly; carry a big stick.*
It is embarrassing to have to point this out, but: the truly strong figures in American history have not resorted to bluster like the bomb-Iran talk of recent weeks. Think of Eisenhower. Think of Lincoln. You don't need to equate Barack Obama with either of them, and I am not doing so, to recognize the strength it requires to distance yourself from tough talk rather than using it to puff yourself up. Let's see which of this week's subsequent speakers can demonstrate strength in the same way.
2) 'Every single time.' The ritual of the AIPAC speech really is something. I am trying to think of a parallel for the first part of this address, in which Obama explained that he was really, truly Israel's friend:
As you examine my commitment, you don't just have to count on my words. You can look at my deeds. Because over the last three years, as President of the United States, I have kept my commitments to the state of Israel. At every crucial juncture -- at every fork in the road -- we have been there for Israel. Every single time.
On the merits, Obama is of course right. And, as Andrew Sullivan has argued, Obama made the case that the U.S. has an anti-proliferation interest in preventing Iran from getting the bomb, which aligns with but is apart from Israel's own security concerns. It's the expectation of the apologia that is remarkable. 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. (About England? Italy? Canada? Mexico?)
I recognize the uniqueness of Israel's history and the importance of "trust" in a president's word and intent. But the oddity of the AIPAC ritual is worth noting, and not in a good way.
3) 'Naive questions.' William Whitworth was the Atlantic's editor through the 1980s and 1990s. In 1970, as a young writer for the New Yorker, he published a famous article called "Some Questions About the War." "The war" at that time was the war in Vietnam, and Whitworth sat down with one of the era's most prominent hawks, Eugene Rostow, to ask a series of seemingly innocent questions about what the U.S. had at stake in Southeast Asia.
Each time Rostow would say that national prestige or the international balance of power was involved, Whitworth would ask, "Why, exactly?" The result, eventually published as the book Naive Questions About War and Peace, illustrated the power of slogan and shibboleth. For instance, when Whitworth pushed him for specifics, Rostow -- a sophisticated and erudite person -- said, "I should be willing to bet that in the event of a pullout in South Vietnam one of the first things you'd see would be a big blowup in Korea." (For the record: of course that didn't happen.)