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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.

A reader on the West Coast writes:

I agree with most of what you've said.  But the comments you cited, most notably Eugene Rostow's, illustrate an all-too-common fallacy of the reasoning of so-called experts in such situations:  "learning" from the unsound reasoning of an earlier crisis to make "better" policy choices this time around. 

The hawks of the Vietnam era had "learned" from Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler, followed by Stalin's takeover of Eastern Europe and the "Who Lost China" accusations, that we must be prepared to intervene anywhere to prevent the fall of the dominoes everywhere. As our local Oregon "hawk," Democratic Congressman Bob Duncan (who narrowly lost a Senate race to Mark Hatfield in 1966 and then challenged Wayne Morse unsuccessfully in 1968), said in 1966: "I'd rather fight them on the banks of the Mekong than in the rye grass along the Columbia."  Rostow, Dulles, Bundy, and the rest had learned a lesson from their recent past , but then applied it indiscriminately to whatever international crisis came along thereafter.
As you point out, our generation has "learned" that the fall of Vietnam didn't lead to a blowup in Korea.  Other than Laos and Cambodia, the "dominoes" did not fall.  We've also learned that a preemptive strike against Iraq doesn't guarantee the destruction of caches of nuclear weapons when those weapons don't exist.  But should we conclude that neither the US nor Israel is justified in a preemptive attack against Iran, or would we be making a conversely groundless historical extrapolation in Iran as the Rostows made in Vietnam in the 1960s?

I would advocate that we must recognize the differences between the present controversy and the precedents.  I see several critical differences between Iraq/Vietnam (in which our intervention was founded upon a false premise) and Iran, in which the issues are not necessarily the same:  1) Iran appears committed, not only to disputing Israel's legitimacy, but to eradicating Israel as a state altogether; 2) Iran's development of nuclear capability threatens the stability of the Middle East in a variety of other ways, such as intimidating Saudi Arabia and other pro-Western countries in the region.  If Iran rejects the internationally-recognized principles of nuclear nonproliferation and becomes a nuclear state, what are the consequences of other countries in the region, in addition to Israel, following suit? 3) Our choice in Iran may not be merely between peace and war, but whether we let Israel go it alone, or we support them.  Israel's calculation is different from ours, both because of its proximity to Iran and because, given the history of the Jewish people, the Israeli government can never again risk their extermination.  Given those realities, are we better off with the risks of a preemptive attack to try to maintain a non-nuclear Middle East, or the risks of a Middle East in which the Saudis, Egyptians, Iran, Israel, the Pakistanis, and perhaps Hamas, Hezbollah and others, have nuclear capability?

I'm not advocating the neo-con approach, nor of talking up a war.  But I think Obama's measured approach rightly recognizes that the risks here are very serious, and that "existential" risk to Israel may be more real than we care to admit.  The real problem, as with Iraq, is that it's difficult to have a serious public debate about the issue when we don't know what we don't know.  We won't know if our intelligence sources, or Israel's are privy to information that would make a decisive difference in what we should do.  As with Iraq, we'll only find out after the fact, whether we made the right choice.

For now I'll just say: the wonderful book Thinking in Time, by Ernest May and Richard Neustadt, is worth reading for what it says about this exact question, of whether it is possible to "learn" useful "lessons" from history.
Housekeeping note: odd posting times, by US standards, because I am in Australia.