Obama the Idealistic Internationalist versus Romney the Muscular Isolationist

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-23-12

Despite this week’s testy debate, it is difficult to assess any candidate’s foreign policy ideology – let alone how that candidate will act as president. Predicting how a president will function in foreign affairs is as reliable as guessing how first-time parents will act when their children become teenagers – lovely theories succumb to tumultuous unforeseen squalls.

Foreign policy is particularly elusive due to the unpredictability of foreign events, the mushiness in American foreign policy ideologies, and the often-constructive tradition of presidents abandoning their preconceptions once they actually start governing. Barack Obama himself is proof of the haziness here. To the extent that Senator Obama had a foreign policy vision in 2008 as a candidate – when he had as little foreign policy experience as Governor Romney has in 2012 – his presidency has frequently succeeded by forgetting it. As Obama boasts about getting Osama Bin Laden and approving the Afghanistan surge, and as Guantanamo Bay remains open, pacifist leftists are understandably wondering what happened to their anti-war, human rights hero. If Obama is correct that the Republican candidate’s newly moderate domestic policies reflect “Romnesia”; pacifist leftists could mourn many such “Obaminations.”

Still, the two opposing candidates have contrasting foreign policy visions. Essentially, Barack Obama is an idealistic internationalist. Growing up in Hawaii as the son of a Kenyan and a Kansan, living in Indonesia with his anthropologist mother, attending Harvard in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he absorbed a disdain for colonialism, an appreciation for globalism, and a yearning for worldwide cooperation. In 2008, Obama ran to Hillary Clinton’s left on foreign policy, emphasizing his early opposition to the Iraq war, questioning George W. Bush’s war on terror, promising to first try negotiating with Iran, showing great sensitivity to the Palestinians, and questioning Bush’s go-it-alone, my-country-right-or-wrong, might-makes-right swagger.

In fairness, Obama insisted he was not a pushover. His doubts about the Iraq war had to do with that war, not war in general. And he refused to be pegged as a quiche-eating, new age, feminized man who would not know what to do as president if awakened with an emergency call at 3 AM.

The initial Obama foreign policy moves that proved so controversial reflected Obama’s worldview. Making his first foreign call after his inauguration to Mahmoud Abbas, bowing to the Saudi king, exiling the Winston Churchill statue from display in the White House, mollifying Iran, staying silent when the Iranian Green revolution first began, giving his Cairo speech, planning to run a terrorism trial in New York, alienating allies and charming enemies, all stemmed from Obama’s desire to “reset” American relations. He wanted to distance himself and his country from George W. Bush, to build a foreign policy based on cooperation not confrontation, trusting international structures and negotiation not American exceptionalism and unilateralism. In the debate, Obama claimed he “refocus[ed] on alliances and relationships that had been neglected for a decade.”

But Obama has adapted to the demands of running America in 2012. He has kept most of the infrastructure of the war on terror. He has proved steely in okaying drone strikes and hunting down Osama Bin Laden. He has been tough in Afghanistan – having inherited a mess there. And, he has put stopping Iran’s rush to nuclearize on his agenda. In short, blasts of realism reoriented Obama’s idealistic internationalism.

Although he does not admit it, Mitt Romney is probably closer to the Midwestern isolationist tradition than anything else. Nothing in his career – beyond his Mormon missionary work in France – suggests an engagement with the rest of the world, or a faith in the international structures Obama likes. You could hear Romney’s reluctance in his debate statement: “the mantle of leadership for … promoting the principles of peace has fallen to America. We didn’t ask for it. But it’s an honor that we have it.”

Romney is more comfortable with American exceptionalism and insulation than American engagement and multilateralism. However, in our tense, interconnected global village, Romney embraces the more modern, muscular, neoconservative tradition. In short, Romney tends to see America’s involvement overseas as unfortunate, but is comfortable with America asserting itself aggressively both militarily and ideologically abroad, even if that means acting alone. If Romney becomes President, he will have to become more diplomatic and less unilateral than he would like – or than he currently promises.

Regarding the Middle East, while having more Palestinian and pro-Palestinian friends, Obama is also more sensitive to Arab, European, and UN opinion on Israel – although he has resisted the harshest anti-Israel voices there. In addition to disdaining the court of international public opinion, Romney recognizes that anti-Americanism and Islamism help fuel Palestinian terrorism. This makes him particularly hostile to Palestinian nationalism – and far more skeptical about the Arab spring than Obama, who still hopes for redemptive democratic results. So, if Obama wins, Israel does have cause for concern. Especially given the toxic dynamics between Obama and Bibi Netanyahu, chances are good that Obama will pressure Israel for more concessions on the Palestinian issue than many Israelis would otherwise make, and relations regarding Iran will continue to be fragile. Meanwhile, a winning Romney will probably have to adjust and show some sensitivity to Palestinian conc erns to preserve American credibility on the issue – as George W. Bush did when endorsing a Palestinian state.

Ultimately, while tactics may vary, events may intrude, and sparks did fly, the debate left the impression of more convergence than divergence. Both candidates hope to stop Iran, contain China, support Israel, see a flourishing Democratic Arab spring. Even amid this campaign’s enmity, we could hear a helpful reminder that America’s greatest foreign policy victories, including winning World War II and the Cold War, were bipartisan moments uniting the nation not dividing parties.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.

Stephen Harper’s foreign policy is truly Canadian

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 10-22-12

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has done it again. By confronting Iran, he has championed Canadian values, and democracy. It’s ironic that one of the criticisms of his assertive, affirmative foreign policy is that it is somehow “not Canadian.” Fighting evil and refusing to maintain business as usual, even to the point of withdrawing your diplomats, marks a fulfilment of Canadian ideals, not a violation of them. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian mullocracy disrespect peace, order and good government. Canada’s controversial, principled prime minister has once again showed that he understands what each of those core concepts means.

Actually, we should ask the opposite question. What made serious, good, idealistic Canadians start believing that appeasement was the Canadian way? Diplomacy is, of course, a noble pursuit. And peace is preferable to war. But history teaches that frequently strength, morality and vision are the best guarantors of peace – especially when facing evil, ambitious, greedy powers. As every parent knows, giving in often makes unacceptable behaviours worse, not better.

Canadian academics and politicians took a lead role in trying to heal the world after the horrors of World War II. The Canadian contribution to the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with McGill University’s John Peters Humphrey taking the lead, is a justifiable source of pride to Canadians. Similarly, Lester Pearson did great work in teaching the world that human rights standards should be universal and that peace can be achieved through what Winston Churchill called “jaw jaw” not “war war.”

But Pearson was no relativist. Among his great achievements was helping the world recognize its obligation to support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine in the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan. Supporting the initiative entailed taking a stand, articulating a moral position and rocking the boat. Similarly, when he said in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize that “ideas are explosive,” Pearson was acknowledging the power of ideas, while admitting that some ideas can be forces for good, even as others can be extremely harmful.

Unfortunately, the cataclysmic 1960s upset the moral compass of many of Pearson’s and Humphrey’s successors. As the United Nations degenerated from the world’s democracies’ attempt to spread democratic principles worldwide into the Third World dictators’ debating society, many in the West lost heart. Rather than defending the universality of certain key principles such as human rights, they succumbed as a crass coalition of Soviets, Arabs and Third World Communists politicized and thus polluted the human rights apparatus in the UN and elsewhere.

On Nov. 10, 1975, when the U.S. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan – a Stephen Harper precursor – stood strong against the “Zionism is racism” resolution, he was making a stand against the new perverted world order that was emerging. Saul Rae, father of interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae and the Canadian ambassador to the UN at the time, supported Moynihan and denounced the infamous antisemitic and anti-democratic resolution.

But the resolution passed, and the appeasers caved.

Since the 1960s, many in the West have been more guilt-ridden than principled. Suitably abashed at the West’s culpability in an earlier era’s crimes of colonialism, imperialism and racism, many have refused to stand up to the new criminals of today, because they’re still seeking forgiveness for those earlier sins. But a moral inversion has occurred, as some of the victims have become victimizers, which is what is occurring with Islamist terrorists and the Iranians.

Since the 1979 revolution, the Iranian mullahs have harassed their own people, devastated their own economy and violated their own culture’s character. Moreover, they violated centuries-long international rules by kidnapping and holding American diplomats hostage, they entered into a bloody war with Iraq that caused more than one million deaths, and they have threatened Israel – and the United States – with destruction. Persian civilization was sophisticated, disciplined, and tolerant for its day. Iranian Islamism has been crude, violent and infamously intolerant in an increasingly tolerant era. Now, this outlaw regime is seeking nuclear weapons, and progressing rapidly in its perverse quest.

I confess: I don’t get it. How is it progressive or peace-seeking or in any way Canadian to indulge these monsters in their immoral pursuits? We need to echo Moynihan in his eloquent denunciations. And we need to follow Harper’s way, refusing to conduct “business as usual” with regimes that are unnaturally evil.

Debate Prep 2012: For Voters and Candidates

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-2-12

As holiday-weary Israelis wonder whether they will ever be productive again, Americans are preparing to watch their presidential candidates sweat.  Just as Tishrei is holiday-saturation month for Jews, every four years October is debate month in American presidential politics. Tonight, October 3, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will debate domestic policy in Colorado.  On October 11, their vice presidential running mates, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, will debate in Kentucky. Five days later on October 16, voters at a town meeting in New York will question the two presidential candidates about any issues and on October 22 – two weeks before Election Day – Obama and Romney will debate foreign policy in Florida.
These debates – which are more like side-by-side press conferences with some exchanges – are usually the political equivalent of military service: long bouts of boredom punctuated by bursts of melodrama.  Usually, they reinforce media narratives and voter impressions. But they have sometimes changed outcomes, particularly in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s aw shucks, “there you go again” dismissal of President Jimmy Carter’s attacks triggered a Reagan surge – and the largest last minute switch in poll results since polling began in the 1930s.
Treating history as an authoritative Tarot Card rather than a subtle source of wisdom, Mitt Romney’s supporters have been touting that ten-point swing as proof that the Republicans will win. The 1980 moment appeals more broadly to Republicans as indication that a gaffe-prone, ridiculed, seemingly out-of-touch former governor can defeat an earnest Democratic incumbent afflicted by a sagging economy, Middle East troubles, and accusations that the twin pillars of his foreign policy are appeasement and apology not power and pride.
The 1980 debate should sober Obama and buoy Romney.  In his recent book, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold – the White House, Professor Samuel Popkin, an occasional Democratic campaign adviser, recalls his failure coaching Carter in 1980. Playing Reagan in debate “prep,” Popkin echoed the Republican’s devastating anti-Carter criticisms. Popkin describes the kind of careful criticism Romney should launch against Obama, knowing that if the challenger is too aggressive he looks angry and insolent but if he is too deferential he seems weak and intimidated.  Reagan, Popkin writes, “resorted to more subtle, coded criticisms that were harder to defend against. He appeared respectful of the office and the president, suggesting that Carter was hamstrung by defeatist Democrats in Congress.”  This approach forced Carter to rebut the premise – and plaintively claim he was strong – or the conclusion — by insisting Democrats were not defeatists. “Contesting one point left him tacitly conceding the other,” Popkin writes.
Obama’s caveat is in Carter’s reaction.  Offended and embarrassed by the criticism, Carter ended the session after eleven minutes.  Popkin as Reagan had pierced Carter’s “presidential aura,” unnerving everyone in the room.  Trying to dispel the tension, Carter’s chief domestic policy advisor, Stuart Eizenstat, himself Jewish, resorted to ethnic humor by pointing to Popkin and joking, “You didn’t know Governor Reagan was Jewish, did you?” Popkin, who quickly replied “Well, Governor Reagan is from Hollywood,” realized that many of Carter’s people, including the aggrieved president, were unfamiliar with Reagan’s attacks because the majesty of the presidency insulated Carter from serious criticism or serious study of his challenger.
Of course, in an ideal world the debates would emphasize issue flashpoints not gaffe-hunting.   In Denver, Romney should, Reagan-style, subtly question President Obama as to when he as president will take responsibility for the anemic recovery and lingering unemployment rather than scapegoating his predecessor.  At Hofstra University, Romney should ask Obama to explain to the voters present and the American people how his increasing reliance on the heavy hand of federal regulations and big government does not reflect doubt in the traditional invisible hand of individual entrepreneurial Americans and the markets themselves. And in Boca Raton, Romney should prod Obama on the Arab Spring, asking him at what point he would concede that his policy failed rather than simply dismissing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the murder of American diplomats in Libya, and other Obama-orchestrated disasters as “bumps in the road.”  In response, Obama should emphasize his successes in halting the economic freefall, his faith in American ingenuity guided by the government’s occasional, competent, and gentle helping hand, and his muscular defense of American interests in hunting down Osama Bin Laden, boosting troops in Afghanistan, and reprimanding Egypt’s president for delays in defending America’s Cairo embassy. Meanwhile, reporters and voters should push both candidates to explain what sacrifices they will demand from Americans, where they will deviate from their party’s orthodoxy, how they will end partisanship, and what bold solutions they have to American debt, demoralization, and decline.
While such substantive exchanges would allow Americans to weigh the candidates’ dueling philosophies and records, it is more likely that the debates’ verdict will pivot around some theatrical moment. Since televised presidential debates began in 1960, when John Kennedy’s aristocratic calm contrasted with Richard Nixon’s sweaty, herky-jerky intensity, style has usually upstaged substance in debate reporting and debate perceptions.
It is too easy just to blame the press – although broadcasters and reporters will be seeking “gotcha” moments when a candidate stumbles and “grand slams” when a candidate dominates. Moreover, American voters respond more to debate theatrics than polemics. The mass reaction reflects one of the realities of modern leadership, which too many academics ignore and editorialists lament:  image rules, style counts, a successful president or prime minister must communicate effectively not just administer smoothly.
This season, as the American campaign peaks and the silliness surges, it will be easy to mock American politics. How lucky Israelis are that in the Jewish state politics is substantive, straightforward, serious, and scrupulous….
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents:  George Washington to Barack Obama,”  his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.

Center Field: Obama beware: Sometimes personal magic can be tragic

By Gil Troy, The Jerusalem Post, 7-30-09

Barack Hussein Obama has now been president for six months – when campaigning he avoided using his full name, now he embraces it. As he passes this half-year milestone, his honeymoon with the public may be ending – although America’s media remain gaga over him.

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama is...

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama is sworn in at the inauguration ceremony in January. ‘So far, simply getting elected has been Obama’s greatest achievement.’
Photo: AP

Obama is readying for a major fight over health care. His popularity is starting to sag. As he enters what was a difficult phase for new presidents, Obama should learn from history not to bank only on his charisma. Other presidents have learned the hard way that depending too much on personal magic can prove tragic for the country.

Thus far, simply getting elected has been Obama’s greatest achievement. On Election Day, and with his inauguration, Barack Obama brought hope to a depressed country. Counterfactuals are impossible to prove, but it is hard to believe that electing John McCain or Hillary Rodham Clinton would have generated the excitement of Obama’s victory. A McCain win in particular probably would have triggered rounds of recriminations and accusations of racism, especially considering most reporters’ pro-Obama bias during the campaign – and since.

Obama played his part magnificently. “Yes We Can” inspired a country demoralized by George W. Bush’s lethargy, Iraq’s complexity, New Orleans’ devastation and the financial collapse. As both candidate and rookie president, Obama demonstrated perfect political pitch on the racial issue, never indulging in racial demagoguery or anger, refusing to run as the black candidate, but embracing his historic role as an agent of healing and change when he won.

GOVERNING, of course, requires more than winning election by spinning an uplifting personal narrative. In fairness to Obama, when he started running he – and most everyone else – believed these years would be times of continued prosperity. Few anticipated the financial crash, although that secured Obama’s victory, given that the debacle occurred on the Republicans’ watch. Obama has also been blessed by his predecessor’s unpopularity and the Republican opposition’s stunning impotence.

But Obama has been cursed by this financial crisis’s depth and complexity. So far, he has blamed Bush. But, as Ronald Reagan learned, presidential success early on – and pie-in-the-sky promises about saving the economy – quickly make the incumbent responsible. In 1981, Reagan blamed Jimmy Carter and the Democrats for the great inflation, high interest rates and crushing budget deficits he inherited. After many legislative successes and hope-laden speeches that culminated in August 1981, seven months into his presidency, the economy nose-dived. When Congress returned from its summer recess, Democrats blamed their constituents’ suffering on “The Reagan Recession.”

The $787 billion stimulus plan could end up being Obama’s albatross. He erred by allowing the congressional pork-kings to dictate the legislation, burdening it with pet projects rather than smart stimuli. He further erred by forgetting his vows of bipartisanship and post-partisanship, thus failing to share responsibility with the Republicans.

ULTIMATELY, like Reagan, Obama has time on his side. All he needs is a recovery by spring 2012 and he can still claim a new, Reaganesque, “morning in America,” with his own liberal twist.

But by veering as far left as he has domestically, by playing the hard partisan game he has, he risks following in the footsteps of Jimmy Carter – who six months into his presidency scored about 10 percentage points higher than Obama has in public approval surveys. And Obama is now entering a particularly difficult passage in his presidency as he tries to overcome the health care reform curse that stymied Bill Clinton – another young charismatic Democrat with great potential.

In foreign affairs, Obama’s addiction to his own rhetoric and charisma is more apparent, and more dangerous. Foreign policy has often been a refuge for modern presidents, an arena for bold actions, stirring speeches and fawning headlines with less congressional or press interference.

But many major presidential disasters of the past half-century were rooted in foreign troubles. Most people forget that the phrase “the best and the brightest” – which has been used repeatedly to boost Obama and his Ivy League advisers – was more epitaph than tribute in David Halberstam’s classic work on Vietnam. John Kennedy’s people, despite his charisma and eloquence, despite their smarts and pedigrees, steered America into the bogs of Indochina.

So far, while his actions in boosting troops in Afghanistan and keeping troops in Iraq have been measured, Obama’s instincts abroad have proved troubling. Reacting feebly to in-your-face North Korean missile tests and initially dismissing heroic Iranian protests while belligerently targeting Israeli settlements further evokes unhappy memories of Jimmy Carter, who incompetently alienated friends and appeased enemies.

OBAMA’S CAIRO speech revealed his characteristic tendency to hover above the fray, create moral equivalencies between opponents and promise to reconcile the unreasonable combatants. World affairs are rarely that simple. Naivete and moral obtuseness usually fail, even if George W. Bush proved too heavy-handed, simplistic and incompetent.

Still, the presidential learning curve, especially in foreign affairs, can be steep. The presidency, despite being the world’s most scrutinized job, is also ever-changing, providing more plot twists than an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Nikita Khrushchev bullied John Kennedy when they first met in Vienna in 1961, only to be outmaneuvered by a more experienced JFK during the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

And Israelis forget that George W. Bush, whose warm friendship for Israel seems to have put off Obama, did not enter the White House as an obvious friend. Well into Bush’s first year in office, Bush – or his secretary of state Colin Powell – criticized nearly every Israeli action against Palestinian terrorism, which mounted with increasing intensity that awful year. Only the horrors of September 11, 2001 – followed in January 2002 by Yasser Arafat’s direct lie to Bush claiming not to know anything about the Karine-A illegal arms shipment from Iran – changed Bush’s approach.

A now-famous YouTube video shows Obama killing a fly easily during a television interview. Obama gloats at his success, which was cool and impressive. As he governs, Obama has demonstrated great potential but even greater confidence. Whether his cool personality roots him, or his arrogance defeats him, remains to be seen.

Ultimately, results not charisma will count.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University, on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction has just been published by Oxford University Press.

Gil Troy: Center Field: Obama at 100 days

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-11-09

Barack Obama has just completed his first hundred days as president, an artificial benchmark rooted in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. John Kennedy proved more successful than his first hundred days suggested, marred as they were by the aborted Bay of Pigs attack against Cuba. George W. Bush’s presidency ended less successfully than it began. Still, a presidential character starts forming during this honeymoon, while story lines emerge that determine a president’s destiny.

Obama’s greatest challenge has been saving America’s economy, but he cannot ignore foreign policy. Domestically, Obama wants to match Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, presidents who restored hope, revived the economy, and redefined Americans’ relationship with government – in this case correcting Reagan’s anti-government drift. Regarding foreign policy, Obama appears to follow Theodore Roosevelt with a twist. TR advised: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” So far – and the presidency remains young – Obama is speaking softly to enemies, treating friends coolly and carrying a medium-sized stick.

OBAMA’S FOREIGN AFFAIRS messaging has positioned him as the “unBush,” apologizing for American “arrogance” in Europe, smiling with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and denouncing torture. He has offended many British and Canadian citizens while signaling he is ready to rumble with Israel. But Obama has not acted like the pushover he sometimes appears to be. He is keeping troops in Iraq. He has intensified combat in Afghanistan. And he gave the shoot to kill order when Somali pirates held an American hostage.

Obama has suggested it does not cost anything to be friendly, to engage, to consider negotiating. He enjoys tweaking conservatives. He knows that when they criticize his chatting with Venezuela?s dictator or his sweeping bow to Saudi Arabia’s king, it helps the world consider him reasonable.

Such kowtowing to dictators and Europeans can backfire, especially when Obama slights America’s closest friends. British newspapers attacked Obama for not scheduling a podiumto-podium press conference when Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited Washington, and for giving Brown a pedestrian gift of 25 DVDs with classic American movies. Among other gifts, Brown presented Obama with a pen holder crafted from the timber of a 19th-century British warship that fought slave traders.

Some Canadians resent Obama’s initial green light to congressional protectionists, fearing a trade war which could make this traumatic recession another Great Depression. Others were insulted when Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano foolishly equated Canada’s peaceful if congested border with Mexico’s violent, porous one.

President Barack Obama arrives for the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, Saturday, May 9, 2009 PHOTO: AP

Moreover, while avoiding confronting Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Obama has retreated from Bush’s pro-Israel embrace. The first foreign leader Obama called was Mahmoud Abbas, clearly saluting the Palestinians and implicitly criticizing Israel’s Gaza operation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has forgotten her enthusiastic support for Israel as a senator and a presidential candidate. Treating a nuclear Iran as Israel’s problem not America’s and the world’s, she said Israel would have to make concessions to the Palestinians to ensure American pressure against Iran. Most ominously, Obama seems ready to fund a Palestinian unity government. This move would end the sensible boycott against Hamas, without first demanding Hamas change its genocidal charter or terrorist ways.

DEMOCRATS USED to be America’s foreign policy idealists. Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy spoke eloquently and acted righteously. They defended the world against German aggression, Nazism and Soviet communism while establishing noble but effective multilateral institutions. The Vietnam War and, now, the Iraq war, soured many Democrats on high-flying ideals. Obama seems to govern in that spirit.

Obama will eventually have to start distinguishing America’s friends and enemies. Obama happily dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to AIPAC with a “tough love” greeting, but will he confront America’s critics or fairweather friends with a “you’re not going to like my saying this” message too? Rather than simply apologizing for Bush’s War on Terror, Obama will have to remind Muslims how many Americans died trying to protect Muslims in Kosovo, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. His administration will have to find its moral center, rather than disappointing dissidents worldwide when Clinton says human rights issues will not divide the US and China. And Obama needs to learn what it took Bill Clinton years to learn – that Palestinian rejection of Israel’s very existence and Palestinians’ addiction to terror pose the major obstacles to Middle East peace not Israeli settlements or sentiments.

MEANWHILE, OBAMA’S cool temperament moderates his actions, making his policies less radical than his gestures. His tough-minded approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan suggests he understands the threat al-Qaida and the Taliban pose. His gradual troop reduction in Iraq reflects a similar sobriety and maturity, letting the realities of governance eclipse the rhetoric of campaigning.

Obama’s actions regarding the Durban anti-racism review conference exemplified his strategy at his best, as he played good cop, then bad cop. By sending diplomats to preliminary meetings, Obama showed he would engage the world, unlike Bush. By nevertheless boycotting because too many Muslim and authoritarian delegates pushed their anti-Israel, anti-Western and anti-free speech lines, Obama acted properly, but with greater credibility.

Yet Obama has opened a dangerous Pandora’s box by exposing so many of the CIA’s torture tactics. He seems to want to root his moral center in the traditional American disgust for torture and America’s repudiation of the Bush administration. He is a brilliant communicator and strategist, beloved by the media, who outmaneuvered experienced opponents like Hillary Clinton and John McCain to become president. Obama is betting he can woo back America’s wavering allies and outfox America’s enemies. He trusts that America’s staunchest allies, including Great Britain, Canada and Israel, will persevere, judging him by his actions not his gestures.

Still, another terrorist attack on American soil, an aggressive nuclear-armed Iran, the Taliban overrunning Pakistan, a defiant, dictatorial Russia or some unexpected disaster could feed a media spin that Obama’s concessions emboldened America’s enemies a la Jimmy Carter and derail his administration. Obama is emerging as a leader ready to make big changes and take big chances. Succeeding will require great skill, clear values, incredible good fortune – and America’s true friends working alongside it.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, was recently published by Basic Books.

Gil Troy: Student unions should stick to student issues

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 2-26-09

Earlier this month, McGill University students voted 436 to 263 to postpone indefinitely a Students’ Society resolution condemning the “bombings” of “educational institutions in Gaza.”

The initiative paralleled similar resolutions that passed at other Canadian universities, including the University of Toronto and York. But a clear majority of McGill students proclaimed that they didn’t want their student union developing a foreign policy. As pro-Palestinian forces try to import yet another round of the Middle East conflict to campus, the McGill majority endorsed the vision of a student society devoted to students’ needs and enhancing campus society, not pontificating about political conflicts far away.

True, it’s the academic’s conceit to comment about everything. We enjoy passing judgment from our cushy ivory towers, inviting our students to join our know-it-all chorus. Few students need such encouragement, compelled as they are by their own youthful vanity to judge the world that their elders have bequeathed them.

Student political organizations convey that spirit, legitimately. Campuses should be filled with many social, political and religious organizations, reflecting diverse attitudes, ideologies and political persuasions. I’m proud of my students who campaigned for now-U.S. President Barack Obama, and my student – note the singular – who supported Senator John McCain. I love seeing young Liberals and Conservatives electioneering, and I applaud the passion of those from beyond the conventional political spectrum, too.

Nevertheless, students’ partisan identities shouldn’t intrude on student union politics. The inspiration that so many students drew from Obama was commendable, but it would have been appalling if a student union had circulated a motion praising Obama and condemning McCain. This breach of political etiquette would have turned the student union into partisan Democratic headquarters, making it the student disunion.

Following a similar rationale, the anti-Israel resolutions are divisive and distracting, as well as disproportionate and discriminatory. They sabotage the modern university’s commitment to diversity. All great universities today welcome students of different religions, nationalities, races and creeds. Pronouncing on such a hot-button issue, implying that students share some consensus position, imposes thought control and presumptions of uniformity where none exist. This posture of unity will foster disunity, importing passionate divisions into an arena where they don’t belong.

Such incendiary, irrelevant resolutions distract from what should be a student society’s mission: improving students’ experiences.

Five years ago, engineering and commerce students at Concordia University rebelled against their student union’s political obsessions. Students were embarrassed that all too often, job recruiters related to Concordia as a place characterized by radical, sometimes violent, pro-Palestinian stands rather than as a centre of academic excellence. The students elected new leaders committed to helping students, not developing a foreign policy.

Finally, the resolutions themselves give a slanted view of a complex conflict. They ignore the role of Hamas, a terrorist group with an anti-Semitic, genocidal charter that advocates Israel’s destruction, in triggering the recent violence, cowering behind educational institutions, mosques and hospitals, and targeting Israeli schools.

Where were these concerned students when 10,000 Palestinian rockets bombarded Israel? Where were student unions when these rockets fell on Sapir College in the Negev or on nurseries, kindergartens, elementary schools and high schools in Sderot and its environs? Where is the outrage that smuggled Grad missiles menaced Ben-Gurion University, or that Soroka Hospital in Be’er Sheva – which serves Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze and Bedouin equally – is targeted? Does anybody care that Soroka had to place sandbags on its sleep lab and evacuate its maternity ward under fire?

More profoundly, has anyone condemned Hamas for threatening chances of a two-state solution by using the Gaza pullout to launch rockets and dig tunnels rather than building a functioning civil society? The umbrage at Israel’s actions seems false and disproportionate, thus discriminatory, singling out the Jewish state for special scrutiny and particular enmity.

Campuses are fragile ecosystems, special places where many different people congregate to live together and learn together. Campus leaders have a special responsibility to avoid polluting the atmosphere with poisonous rhetoric, biased behaviour and irrelevant assaults on fellow students’ sensibilities. Indulging in foreign policy postures regarding explosive issues, particularly the Middle East, fails that test – raising tensions rather than alleviating them, doing nothing to solve the conflict and importing tensions from 10,000 kilometres away too close to home.

Nearing toward foreign policy consensus

JPost, July 20, 2008

A JPost.com exclusive blog

Barack Obama and John McCain clashed over foreign policy last week – or did they? While some headlines emphasized the two candidates’ differences, proclaiming “McCain Slams Obama on Iraq Surge,” the two also agreed on many important fundamentals – as well as key policies.

Their points of overlap demonstrate that both are patriots, both are “anti-terror,” both seek an American victory in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The fact that the previous sentence needs to be written, of course, illustrates the absurd extremes to which so many partisan critics take the polarizing discourse about the candidates.

Appropriately, Israel was not a central thrust of either speech. But the fundamental equation remains operative – what is good for America in this election will be good for Israel. And if the winning candidate sticks to the vision articulated in either of the two speeches, America, and Israel, will be all right.

Characteristically – and in fairness, due to the setting – Obama’s speech at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Building in Washington was more sweeping, more visionary, more programmatic. McCain’s response at a town hall meeting was more focused, more hands-on, more strategic.

Obama built his speech by remembering America’s Cold War containment policy, embracing George Marshall’s faith in “judgment,” mixing what we now call “hard” and “soft” power.

Before finishing with an inspirational return to his history lesson, Obama demonstrated his commitment to righting the wrongs of the Bush years with a deft combination of self-sacrifice, selflessness, muscle-flexing and nation-building – in the United States and abroad. He sees foreign policy – like domestic policy – as a vehicle for national renewal, for encouraging Americans to work together and build a national sense of mission and community, while defending their nation and improving the world.

Less loftily, Obama proclaimed “five goals essential to making America safer: ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

Obviously, the rhetoric of a campaign speech does not necessarily anticipate a president’s track record in the Oval Office. But the bulk of Obama’s speech would be thoroughly acceptable to most Ronald Reagan Republicans. In particular, both Obama and McCain agreed about the need to beef up the American troop presence in Afghanistan.

In response, John McCain focused part of his stump speech in New Mexico on Obama, Afghanistan, and Iraq, rather than delivering a more formal foreign policy address.

Highlighting the contrast between the young, eloquent, intellectual visionary and the wizened warrior, McCain came out swinging, “I know how to win wars. I know how to win wars,” McCain told his Albuquerque audience. “And if I’m elected President, I will turn around the war in Afghanistan, just as we have turned around the war in Iraq, with a comprehensive strategy for victory, I know how to do that.”

Sharpening his elbows, McCain said: “In wartime, judgment and experience matter. In a time of war, the commander in chief doesn’t get a learning curve.”

And more directly, he mocked his opponent, reading two Obama quotations, one back in January 2007 doubting the surge would work, and a second one a year later, acknowledging that more troops in Iraq led to more stability. “My friends, flip-floppers all over the world are enraged,” McCain chuckled.

In fact, both candidates are converging, not only about Afghanistan. Both understand that in the wake of the Bush presidency, America needs to experience an economic, diplomatic, and ideological renewal. Obama is more explicit about that – but McCain rides heavily on the fact that he was calling for what became the “surge” while George W. Bush was still blindly defending “Rummy” – Donald Rumsfeld – and pooh-poohing reports of chaos in Baghdad.

And even on Iraq, Obama is cautiously, cleverly, and responsibly, narrowing the gap between his policies and McCain’s. Obama still talks about giving the military “a new mission on my first day in office: ending this war” – an interesting choice of words considering that the traditional goal of most militaries is to win the war not just end it.

Still, analysts noted that Obama’s sixteen month timetable, now is set to begin on Inauguration Day – six months from now, and he spoke about a “residual” force remaining. Clearly, as the possibility that he just might become Commander-in-Chief grows, Obama is realizing that his rhetoric and his postures may have serious life-and-death implications.

This convergence in a campaign is good. It is not just the gravitational pull to the center we often see after primaries. It is not just the “oh, boy, I might be president” flight from irresponsibility. It is also precisely what the American people want. A Washington Post poll this week found that 78 percent of those surveyed, “said it is more important for a candidate to adjust positions to changing circumstances than to stick to his original stands (18 percent prioritize consistency).”

By this poll, more than three-quarters of the American people are more mature than most reporters and bloggers, partisans and pols. The challenge is for the candidates to show they can campaign vigorously, disagree passionately on some issues, while still reassuring the American people they understand that they both share many common values, common dreams, and common-sense policies.

Support for Israel remains a part of this consensus. Judging by this week’s exchange, as well as the more Israel-focused AIPAC speeches, the hysterical claims that Obama is going to abandon the Jewish State, or that McCain is going to so blindly support Israel there will be no constraints are both overstated.