Enough Already

When it comes to Israel, neither Obama nor Romney is as good or bad as American Jews think.

It must be something in the water.

Once every four years, rational, right-thinking Americans get crazy. Election ads clearly hype up an already polarized electorate. And right about now, on the hot-button issues of the day -- debt, deficit, who's leading from behind in foreign policy and who's not -- many Americans seem to lose the capacity to think for themselves.

Instead of weighing issues deliberately, coolly and logically, they (we?) freak out. Indeed, to borrow a phrase from poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (though this is really not what he actually meant), Americans tend to willingly suspend their disbelief and accept uncritically the wackiest notions on domestic and foreign policy.

And the more Americans seem to care about an issue, the greater that wackiness becomes.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the Israel issue, where very smart and politically engaged members of the American Jewish community persist in turning the election into a dramatic battle over which candidate is better for the Jews. Indeed, lost somewhere in this very foggy and politicized Bermuda Triangle, Jewish Republicans and Democrats trade dueling cosmic oy veys about what may happen to Israel if their guy isn't elected or the other guy wins.

There's nothing terribly remarkable or new about any of this. American Jews care deeply about Israel and are always worried about its security and concerned about the level of American support. And they're constantly creating litmus tests to judge the candidates' fealty to Israel. Whether there's more hysteria this time around is hard to say. The dynamic in 1980 between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and again in 1992 between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton got pretty intense.

But sure enough, here we go again.

Too many Democrats want to pretend that Barack Obama is the most pro-Israel president in American history (see Joe Biden's paean to Obama). And too many Republicans want to believe that Mitt Romney is Israel's salvation and will rescue the Jews from the clutches of a sitting president they somehow think is a cross between Carter and Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

None of these morality plays, of course, bear the slightest resemblance to reality. There are indeed significant differences in the way Obama and Romney relate to the Israel issue. Regardless of who wins, however, it's just not going to make much of a difference in the U.S.-Israel relationship. Here's why.

Let's start with the president. I've written before that Obama really isn't Clinton (or George W. Bush either) when it comes to emotionally bonding with or intuiting Israeli fears and hopes. And his supporters -- both Jewish and non-Jewish -- should stop pretending that he is, or that he's a member of their synagogue's men's club. This fantasy reached a truly ridiculous level when New York magazine ran a cover story portraying Obama as "the first Jewish president."

As perhaps America's best emoter-in-chief, Clinton, broke the mold in relating to Israelis (and Palestinians too) on a gut level. After all, it was Clinton who wrote in his memoirs that he loved Yitzhak Rabin as he'd loved no man -- a remarkable statement by any standard. I remember a high-ranking Israeli walking out of a meeting with Clinton wondering why he couldn't be their prime minister. And after Clinton's historic 1998 address to the meeting of the Palestine National Council in Gaza, a very frustrated Palestinian blurted out the very same sentiment.

Nor is Obama Harry Truman, as Biden keeps implying. Truman was frustrated and angry about Zionist pressure for statehood. But he was genuinely and spontaneously moved emotionally and morally by the tragedy of the Holocaust, the condition of refugees and the displaced, and the hopes for a Jewish state. And it showed.

Times were different then. And Obama is different now too. Part of it's generational. He was born after the Israeli occupation and spent most of his time not in the political world, where being good on Israel is as natural as breathing, but in a university environment where Israel is viewed as only one side of a coin, with the Palestinians on the other.

The president wasn't raised on the Paul Newman Exodus movie trope in which the Israelis were the brave cowboys and the Arabs were the hostile Indians. Indeed, his penchant for nuance, complexity, and detachment drives him to avoid seeing matters in black and white. These skills might serve him well if he ever got a chance to get to real negotiations. But that's the point: His inability to connect emotionally as Clinton and Bush did may make it harder for him to get there in the first place.

No matter how hard his advocates keep trying to hype Obama's pro-Israel accomplishments (security assistance, defending Israel at the United Nations), it just doesn't seem to resonate. I had a similar experience during the Bush 41 administration, when I was trying to persuade a Jewish audience in Detroit of all the good the president had done for Israel -- taking care of Saddam Hussein, absorbing Russian Jews, and so on. After laying out my list, an elderly guy in the back raised his hand and asked, "If things are so great, why do I feel so bad?"

That same lack of a connection is mirrored at the very top today, where Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have struggled without finding much common ground. Despite differences on settlements and the peace process, Clinton managed to actually reach two agreements with Bibi. Likewise, Bush 43 managed a relationship with an even tougher Ariel Sharon, partly because he was just as prepared almost instinctively to give the Israelis the benefit of the doubt more times than not.

Obama isn't. Neither the Iranian nuclear issue nor the peace process seems to have yet created any real foundation for personal trust or chemistry. And it has led -- even four years in -- to perhaps the most troubled ties between an Israeli prime minister and an American president. Netanyahu bears his fair share of the responsibility. Obama doesn't believe Bibi is prepared to accommodate American interests, and Bibi thinks Obama is bloodless when it comes to understanding Israel's own needs.

Obama clearly doesn't like Netanyahu's bravado or what he believes is his callous disregard for American interests. In this regard, Obama probably fits somewhere between Carter and Bush 41 when it comes to how frustrated they were with the Israelis.

But get a grip, people: Obama is not an enemy of the state of Israel. Biden is right to claim that security cooperation and the institutionalized components of the U.S.-Israel relationship are thriving. And while this piece of the relationship has a certain automaticity to it and has improved under every American president since Richard Nixon, Obama is not going to "throw Israel under the bus" and pursue an approach that jeopardizes Israel's security. No American president ever would or could.

It's equally unreal and fantastical for Jewish Republicans to see Romney as the savior of Israel or somehow as the guy who has the will and skill to solve Israel's tough challenges or to somehow make them easier to manage. Right now, a Romney presidency is only a counterfactual exercise. But there's very little on the face of it that would suggest that a President Romney would have any more luck than his predecessors in fixing these critical issues.

There's no doubt that the personal relationship between these two leaders will improve. And that's important. But there's no sense at all that Romney has any better ideas on Iran or certainly the peace process than Obama. Greenlighting an Israeli attack on Iran and ignoring the peace process may not be the best course for Israel or America. Indeed, my own view is that on the nuclear issue, there will be little difference between the actual policies both would adopt and that in the end there will be more cooperation with the Israelis on Iran not less -- largely because Washington and Jerusalem will need one another to see this through without a disaster.

On the Palestinian issue, based on their track records, I have just as little confidence in Obama's activist approach as I do in Romney's professed policy of under-engagement. In any event, the road to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is littered with challenges that will be tough to overcome regardless of who's elected. On the security side, both will continue to support maintaining Israel's qualitative military edge.

As for American Jews, I know they worry for a living. The history of the Jewish people impels them to do so. But when it comes to the health of the U.S.-Israel relationship, they ought to take a deep breath and relax.

The key indicator in choosing the next president shouldn't be the U.S.-Israel relationship. That's too big to fail -- shared values, a strong pro-Israel community, and the behavior of the Arabs and Iran will all sustain it. Indeed, there's little chance of a divorce here. And like a committed marriage, it will endure across moments of happiness and tension, as well as its fair share of ups and downs. In fact, should Romney become president and Netanyahu remain in power, I'd bet that within a year they'll be annoying each other too.

Instead, the key question American Jews need to ask themselves isn't whether Romney or Obama is good for the Jews, but who's better for America. Indeed, particularly when it comes to domestic policy, where there are huge differences, American Jews ought to be far more focused on which of these guys would be better for their own country and less concerned about their policies toward somebody else's.

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Reality Check

Mitt Romney's Terrible Wall Street Journal Op-Ed

It's official: The Republican nominee has no new ideas for the Middle East.

First, full disclosure. I'm not associated with either the Barack Obama or the Mitt Romney campaign in any way. Over the years, I've worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations and voted for candidates from both parties. On foreign and domestic policy, I've come to believe that the appropriate dividing line for Americans should not be between Democrat and Republican, left and right, liberal and conservative, but between dumb and smart. And we ought to be on the smart side.

That's why I was stunned to read Mitt Romney's op-ed in Sunday's Wall Street Journal, which ran under the headline, "A New Course for the Middle East." Even by the standards of political silly season and in the heat of battle weeks before an election -- when exaggeration, obfuscation, and willful distortion become the orders of the day -- this article sets a new bar for its vacuity, aimlessness and lack of coherence. There's nothing "new" in it, and it provides no "course for the Middle East." If anything, it takes us back to the kind of muscular nonsense and sloganeering that has wreaked havoc on our credibility in recent years. Here's why:

1. Obama's Middle East mistakes

Obama's record in this still angry, broken, and dysfunctional region is far from perfect. But the latest security failure in Libya reflects badly on a record that has been pretty competent on such matters. Convinced he could transform the Middle East partly with his own persona and partly with the goodwill engendered by the fact that he wasn't George W. Bush, Obama raised expectations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on diplomacy and engagement with Iran, Syria that he could never deliver. This wasn't about the lack of American leadership. None of these problems were amenable to rapid transformation from Day One. American power was limited by the inherently conflicting agendas of regional actors, whose interests were not our own, and whom we could not control or co-opt. In raising hopes, President Obama diminished U.S. credibility, but to criticize him for failing to stop Iran's nuclear program or for not delivering an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is ridiculous. Not even a negotiating team of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad could have done that.

2.  Obama's successes

Obama accomplished three critically important things in this region for which Romney will not (but should) give him credit. First, he became a more focused and more disciplined version of Bush 43 when it came to counterterrorism policy: He killed Osama bin Laden, pulverized al Qaeda, and has so far prevented another attack on the continental United States. Protecting the homeland is the organizing principle of a nation's foreign policy. If you can't do that, you really don't need a foreign policy. Second, Obama committed himself to (and is succeeding in) extricating America from the two longest wars in our history -- wars that were among our most pointless, given what we sacrificed and what we've gotten in return. Third, he kept us out of new ones. (See Syria, Iran.) It is important to think through what your objectives are before you act and, in particular, how the application of American military power, whether alone or with others, would achieve those goals or make them worse. So far, in Syria and Iran, Obama has made the right call by not pursuing military half measures that might not work, could make the situation worse or create a slippery slope to greater U.S. involvement.

3.  Israel

Romney has part of this right. Obama wrestled with Benjamin Netanyahu on the wrong issue -- settlements -- with no strategy or sense for how to use this tactic to achieve the ultimate goal: an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. And there's no doubt that on an emotional level, even though Bibi is hardly an easy guy to get along with, Barack Obama isn't Bill Clinton or George W. Bush when it comes to bonding with Israel. And frankly, this is a serious problem. But to imply that Obama is willfully dismissing or trivializing Israeli concerns on Iran, let alone throwing Israel under the bus, just doesn't wash. With the exception of Britain, the United States probably has a closer relationship with Israel than any other nation. Even so, our interests -- given that there are two of us -- can't always align perfectly. And we need to deal honestly with one another when they don't. Should Romney become president, the personal relationship between Netanyahu and the president would improve. But who's to say that Romney's instincts to ignore the Palestinian issue or give Israel greater leeway on striking Iran's nuclear sites are the best policies for Israel? Indeed, the governor is hardly Israel's salvation. Dollars to donuts, I'd bet that within a reasonable period of time, Netanyahu would also find a way to annoy Romney and vice versa.

4.  U.S. leadership

I hope Romney doesn't believe his own rhetoric and that his op-ed is only campaign bluster.  Because if it's real, we should be worried. I didn't much care for Obama's high-minded, idealized speeches early on about transforming the Middle East -- and I don't care much for Romney's fancy words either. We're stuck in a Middle East we can't fix or leave. And that requires a pretty cruel and unforgiving look at reality, not a bunch of slogans that imply we can do what we want or get others there to do it for us. The past twenty years of failed American policy on peacemaking and war making in this region -- under Bill Clinton,  George W. Bush and Barack Obama-- reveal the costs of failure and what it's done for our image abroad.

This has nothing to do with being a "declinist" or not believing in American "exceptionalism."  We are exceptional, but part of that uniqueness lies in understanding that the wisest policies are those that find the balance between the way the world is and the way we want it to be. Great powers get themselves into heaps of trouble when they commit transgressions of omniscience and omnipotence by thinking they know everything and can do everything, too. Romney's op-ed is chock-full of both -- and that's not being on the smart side.

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