Pandering to special interest groups is a time-honored American political
tradition, especially in an election year. The practice is hard-wired into the U.S. system of government, which
gives interest groups many different ways to pressure politicians into doing
their bidding. Whether we are talking
about the farm lobby, the NRA, the AARP, Big Pharma, Wall Street, or various
ethnic lobbies, it's inevitable that politicians running for office will say and
do lots of stupid things to try to win influential groups over. Especially in a close election.
Which of course explains why Mitt Romney flew to Israel over the weekend,
and proceeded to say a lot of silly things designed to show everyone what a
good friend to Israel he will be if he is elected. He wasn't trying to win over Israelis or make
up for his various gaffes in London; his goal was to convince Israel's
supporters in America to vote for him and not for Barack Obama. Most American Jews lean left and will vote for Obama, but Romney would like to keep the percentage as low as he can,
because it just might tip the balance in a critical swing state like
Florida. Pandering on Israel might also
alleviate evangelical Christian concerns about Romney's Mormon faith and make
stalwart "Christian Zionists" more inclined to turn out for him. Of course, Romney also wants to convince wealthy
supporters of Israel to give lots of money to his campaign (and not Obama's),
which is why a flock of big U.S. donors, including gazillionaire casino mogul
Sheldon Adelson, accompanied Romney on his trip.
Once in Israel, Romney followed the script to the
letter. He referred to Jerusalem as
Israel's capital (something the U.S. government doesn't do, because Jerusalem's
status is still supposed to be resolved via negotiation). He said that stopping Iran's nuclear program
was "America's highest national security priority," which tells you that Romney
has no idea how to rank-order national security threats. One of his aides,
neoconservative Dan Senor, even gave Israel a green light to attack Iran,
telling reporters that "If Israel has to
take action on its own, the governor would respect that decision."
But this sort of
pandering is a bipartisan activity, and it's not like Barack Obama isn't
keeping up. The administration has been
sending a steady stream of top advisors to Israel of late, including Secretary
of Defense Leon Panetta, and last week Obama signed a $70 million military aid
deal for Israel, in a public signing ceremony. His message: "Romney can fly around and give speeches, but I'm delivering
real, tangible support."
The good news, such
as it is, is that both Romney and Obama are probably lying. No matter how many times each of them talks
about the "unshakeable commitment" to Israel, or even of their "love" for the
country, they don't really mean it. They
are simply pandering to domestic politics, which is something that all American
politicians do on a host of different issues. Of course, they will still have to shape their
policies with the lobby's clout in mind (as Obama's humiliating retreat on the
settlement issue demonstrates), but nobody should be under the illusion that
they genuinely believe all the flattering stuff that they are forced to say.
Why do I say
that? Well, consider what former
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in a July 2000 interview, conducted as
part of an oral history project conducted by the University of Virginia's Miller
"...Every president I worked for, at some point in his presidency,
would get so pissed off at the Israelis that he couldn't speak. It didn't
matter whether it was Jimmy Carter or Gerry Ford or Ronald Reagan or George
Bush. Something would happen and they
would just absolutely go screw themselves right into the ceiling they were so
angry and they'd sort of rant and rave around the Oval Office. I think it was their frustration about knowing
that there was so little they could do about it because of domestic politics
and everything else that was so frustrating to them."
What was true of these presidents was also true of George W.
Bush and Barack Obama, and if Romney ends
up getting elected, I'll bet the same thing will happen to him too. He just won't admit it publicly.
danger in this conspiracy of silence is that it prevents the foreign policy
community from having an honest discussion about the whole Middle East
situation, including the "special relationship." Although public discourse on this topic is
more open and wide-ranging than it used to be, mostly because some journalists
and academics are freer to write honestly about this topic, it is still nearly
impossible for politicians or ambitious policy wonks to say what they really
think. If you want to get elected, or if
you want to work on a campaign and maybe serve in the U.S. government, you have
to either 1) be fully committed to the "special relationship," 2) pretend to be committed by mouthing all the usual platitudes or 3) remain studiously silent about the whole subject. And I can't think of any other diplomatic
relationship that is such a minefield.
wouldn't be a problem if U.S. Middle East policy was filled with success
stories or if Israel's own actions were beyond reproach. But no country is perfect and all governments
make mistakes. The problem is that
politicians and policymakers can't really have a completely open discussion of
these issues here in the Land of the Free.
a tragic irony in all this. In his book Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, former
Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami wrote that the two presidents who did
the most to advance Arab-Israeli peace were Jimmy Carter and George H. W.
Bush. Carter negotiated the Egyptian-Israeli peace
treaty, and Bush 41 led the 1991 Gulf War coalition and assembled the 1992 Madrid Peace Conference. According to Ben-Ami, Carter and Bush made
progress on this difficult issue because each was willing "to confront Israel head one
and overlook the sensibilities of her friends in America."
words, each was willing to do precisely what Romney is now telling you he
thanks did they get? In 1976, Carter
received 71 percent of the Jewish vote and Gerald Ford got 27 percent, a
typical result given the tendency for American Jews to favor the Democrats. In 1980, however, Carter got only 45 percent,
the lowest percentage ever recorded for a Democratic candidate since World War
II. Similarly, George H. W. Bush got 35 percent
of the Jewish vote in 1988 (compared with 64 percent for Dukakis), but his share
plummeted to only 11 percent in 1992. Their Middle East policies are not the only reason for these shifts, but these two elections are the main outliers over the past fifty years
and the (false) perception that Carter and Bush were insufficiently supportive
of Israel clearly cost both of them some support.
Which is what Romney
is hoping for. The losers will be
the American people, whose Middle East policy will continue to be dysfunctional,
and Israel, which will continue down its present course towards becoming an
apartheid state. And of course the Palestinians will continue to suffer the direct costs of this unhappy situation. But that's democracy at work. If you don't like it, then you'll need to
convince politicians that they will pay a price at the ballot box for this sort
of mindless pandering. Until they do,
it would be unrealistic to expect them to behave any differently.
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