Obama’s Obstacles in Congress

The new regime in Washington looks suspiciously like the old regime. More borrowed money approved by a Democrat-controlled Congress is funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has breezed through his confirmation hearings with a promise of undeclared wars in places like Pakistan, Somalia, and Iran, with a possible surge into something hotter to teach Tehran’s mullahs not to mess with Uncle Sam. Trials by military tribunal, indefinite detention, and state secrecy all continue. Where are the antiwar Democrats? Dead on arrival.

Welcome to the ascendancy of something like the congressional Blue Dogs, Dems who embrace most big government and liberal domestic policies but who support war budgets and an aggressive, interventionist overseas role. Traditionally made up of Southerners and Westerners from conservative districts, the Dogs’ way of looking at things now seems to be attractive to Democrats who like abortion on demand but also want a kick-ass foreign policy. Jane Harman, from liberal southern California, considers herself a Blue Dog, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has long acted like one, speaking like a liberal to her constituents while voting to support every war budget.

Many Democrats who consider themselves moderates or conservatives in foreign policy are cranking up pressure on President Barack Obama to stop his drive to force the Israeli government to enter into serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians. As Obama has been in office going on five months and the Israel lobby has demonstrated its ability to line up supporters in Congress and media, one wonders why it has taken so long for the opposition to emerge. One suspects that there has been a certain caution in proceeding against a highly popular president who is also black and unimpeachably liberal, but Obama’s June 4 Cairo speech in which he again openly called for a complete freeze on Israeli settlements will no doubt intensify the opposition being orchestrated against his Middle Eastern policy.

Let’s assume that Obama is sincere in wanting to change the narrative on Israel-Palestine and that he understands that it is in America’s interest to disengage from its partisan role in the conflict. Taking him at his word, he apparently recognizes that rolling back the Israeli settlements on Palestinian land is the key to any peace agreement. Let us also assume that the opposition to Obama, coming both from Republicans and Democrats, will be guided by the Israeli government and AIPAC talking points to create what aspires to be a credible alternative to the Obama point of view. That alternative will be intensely promoted over the next few months, and it will be bipartisan. Republicans have a number of good reasons of their own to line up firmly with Israel and opposition Democrats. They see Obama’s support of an aggressive peace policy as likely to fail, leaving the president politically vulnerable. They also continue to pander to their own evangelical base, which supports a Greater Israel for religious reasons. For the Democrats, the situation is more complex. Many Democrats recognize the wrongs that have been inflicted on the Palestinians, but they have an emotional and financial attachment to Israeli interests. Even those who support their president’s policy are uncomfortable with pressuring Tel Aviv. They often try to create some wiggle room on Israel’s 1993 Oslo pledge not to build any new settlements, which has been assiduously ignored by a long series of Israeli leaders.

Israel’s friends have not chosen to confront the president directly, but they have been far from passive and can only be ignored at Obama’s peril. At the end of May, three quarters of the House of Representatives and Senate signed similar letters to the president urging restraint in the pursuit of policies being objected to by Israel. The letter promoted by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and House Minority Leader Eric Cantor was actually drafted by AIPAC. The letter states that the U.S. should "work closely with our democratic ally, who will be taking the greatest risks in any peace agreement," that it should act "privately" as a "trusted mediator and devoted friend of Israel," and that it should insist on an "absolute Palestinian commitment to end violence, terror, and incitement." It describes Gaza as an area controlled by terrorists. The letter effectively lays out the AIPAC spin that Israel is a democracy and an ally that is threatened by Palestinian support of terror. Tel Aviv should be dealt with privately to resolve any disagreements, meaning that the president should not publicly rebuke Israel or its leaders at any time. There is no hint that the Palestinians have any intrinsic rights or that the Israelis should have to do anything that they do not wish to do. The letter places all the onus for failure to achieve peace on the Palestinians and guarantees a continued pro-Israel tilt by the United States without Tel Aviv having to make any concessions at all.

The Hoyer-Cantor letter aside, individual congressmen from both parties have also sniped at Obama’s attempt to adopt a more evenhanded position on the Middle East. Democrat Shelley Berkley objected to applying "pressure to the wrong party in this dispute … to stop the natural growth of their settlements." That is a reiteration of the AIPAC-Israeli government contention that somehow the illegal settlements have a right to something known as "natural growth." The phrase surfaces again and again and has been supported through absurd arguments, including that settlers would not be allowed the "natural growth" of having children under the Obama plan.

Rep. Anthony Weiner put it somewhat differently, calling for an end to "pressuring a democracy on what are their domestic policies." This again shifts the argument away from the actual settlements, stressing that Israel is a democracy and that planning new towns on Palestinian land is little more than an internal matter. Congressman Gary Ackerman took that line of reasoning one step further, objecting to the steps taken to "dictate to an ally what they have to do in their own national security interests." According to Ackerman, Israel is a U.S. ally, and it has overriding security interests that Washington must defer to. One expects that 9/11 and al-Qaeda will somehow come into play at some point. Stay tuned.

Some congressmen frame the debate in a way that appears to back Obama while actually supporting the Israeli government. Robert Wexler, who claims to support Obama’s agenda, also endorses convoluted definitions that would permit Israeli expansion of most settlements to continue: “If the communities are outside or are east of the security fence, then it is appropriate and necessary to limit natural growth." But in settlements inside the West Bank security barrier it would be possible “to permit a more lenient policy in terms of the moratorium and the freeze.” Wexler conveniently ignores that the Israeli-built wall incorporates major slices of Palestinian territory, and he also accepts that there is such a thing as natural growth, which he seeks to "limit," not stop, all very similar to the status quo.

Republican Eric Cantor puts the case more strongly, attempting to derail the whole issue by claiming that the Obama argument assumes "that somehow resolving the so-called settlements will somehow" disarm Iran. For Cantor, the settlements are only so-called, and the real objective is to disarm Iran, which insofar as anyone can determine is not U.S. policy, not even for the Republicans. Focusing on Iran also means it is possible to ignore the settlement issue completely.

The Israelis are also staging their own offensive, dismissing Obama’s demands, hyping the Iran threat while linking it to any progress on settlements, and pressing the argument for "natural growth." They have also claimed that the Bush administration might have given the green light for some settlement expansion, an assertion that has been denied both by former Bush officials and by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Even the Bushies were apparently concerned about the level of Israeli settlement activity and balked at approving it, though they did nothing to stop any expansion, natural or otherwise. Right-wing Israeli groups have begun distributing posters calling Obama an anti-Semite and depicting him in Palestinian headgear.

President Obama inherited many intractable problems from the Bush administration. He has failed to take the bold steps that many of his supporters hoped to see in Iraq and Afghanistan. Regarding Palestine-Israel, he is trying to seize the initiative to bring about some kind of resolutio,n even though many argue reasonably enough that the best course for the United States is to disengage completely and leave the parties involved to resolve their own problems. In any event, Obama deserves credit for changing the nature of the debate and for the first time making it clear that the United States sees that there are two sides to the argument, not just the viewpoint that has long been presented by Israel and its friends in the media and Congress. But Israel’s friends should not be counted out. They are powerful, well funded, and they are watching every move that the president makes. Congress is still "Israeli-occupied territory," and Obama will surely have to watch his back as he proceeds through the minefield that is being prepared for him.

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Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.