Editor's notes: Speaking up for Obama

With Herb Keinon: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is circumspect in her criticisms of Bush, but effusive in her praise for a would-be successor.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit:)
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
Nancy Pelosi was biting her tongue when we interviewed her in Jerusalem this week. Visiting Israel to mark the state's 60th anniversary, Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives and thus America's most senior politician after President Bush and Vice President Cheney, said she had made it a policy not to criticize the president when outside the United States. Thus she refrained from directly excoriating George W. Bush for intimating in his Knesset speech last week that a president Barack Obama would deludedly seek to appease Teheran as some had foolishly sought to appease the Nazis. Instead, she referred us to a statement she had made before leaving the US, to the effect that Bush's comments were "beneath the dignity of the office of president." Similarly, while elsewhere she has furiously blamed Bush for "squandering time" when more energetic diplomacy might have deterred Iran's nuclear program, here she simply noted that Teheran is "farther down the road" after two terms of Bush's presidency, and asked: "Explain that to me. What's so good about that?" And whereas she has been known to criticize the administration for making matters worse for Israel by supporting Hamas participation in Palestinian elections, here she chose to assert the potential advantages of a Democratic presidency in this field, vowing that Obama would get an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord done. "Whether you have confidence that Barack Obama can do this or not," she said, "he simply has to." Where Pelosi was notably unrestrained, indeed, was in extolling Obama's virtues - as a "real leader," a strong friend of Israel, a man prepared "to fight in order to make peace," a man of vision. So warm and thorough was Pelosi in her endorsement of the Illinois senator, in fact, that she only belatedly noted that a second candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination is still in the race. We had actually turned off our tape recorders and were preparing to say our good-byes when Pelosi added some remarks about peacemaking in the course of which she mentioned Hillary Clinton for the first time. She was, she then said, "very excited" by the prospect of either of them becoming president and rescuing America's battered reputation. Pelosi, 68, a mother of five, is the Maryland-born youngest of six children of a former congressman, Thomas D'Alesandro III, and his Italian-born wife. She entered Congress 21 years ago, and her California seat is one of the safest nationwide. The first woman to hold the speaker's job, she is a sharp and clearly practiced interviewee, easily vague where she wants to be and thoroughly specific when she chooses. There was impatience in her tone when she discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and an echo of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent comments when Pelosi spoke of the need to "get this done" and "not waste time." But she was tellingly circumspect on the issue of Israeli-Syrian contacts, apparently feeling somewhat burned by the criticism that followed her trip to Damascus to meet with President Bashar Assad last year, when sources close to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suggested that she had delivered a rather more effusive prime ministerial peace message to Assad than the one Olmert had intended. Of course, her attempt at mediation has since been dramatically overtaken by the Israel-Turkey-Syria framework... Excerpts: How do you think America should be grappling with Iran, given the sense here that time is running out, and that the regime in Teheran is not very amenable to negotiations? What America should do is to have the most robust diplomacy possible - financial, economic and diplomatic sanctions on Iran. But it just can't be the US and Europe. It has to be much more broad-based. Other Muslim nations have to weigh in. Under what conditions, if any, would you support a military strike against Iran? That should not be taken off the table. But I think - as with all military action - that it should be a very last resort. Certainly if they strike Israel, that cannot go unanswered. What are the consequences of a preemptive strike on Iran in terms of rallying around their leadership, in terms of the price of oil, in terms of the response of the rest of the Muslim world? All of these have to be weighed in. It is much easier to prevent the problem [of a nuclear Iran] from happening. Because it is not just about Iran getting nuclear weapons. If there is a thought that they can and could and will, many other countries in the region may have that interest as well - and then we are really in for an even bigger problem. Does the US have the international or regional credibility to galvanize the necessary concerted action? I hope that we do, but [we have to be] much more proactive on that front, in terms of again saying to the counties of the world: 'One of the pillars of US foreign policy is to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. A term of our relationship is that you join us in that, because we cannot do this alone.' Is the US making that message clear to Russia and China - that there is a price for not getting on board? Because they are not getting on board. ... I think we missed some opportunities earlier on. There are political reasons why the Chinese and the Russians have proliferated. The Chinese were always concerned about the Uighurs - the Muslim Chinese - in their western region, and the Russians were concerned about the Chechens, so there were two countries they connected up with, Sudan and Iran. They sold weapons to Sudan practically on credit. They transferred technology to Iran. In return, they had the political upside that the two most militant exporters of fundamentalism outside their own borders were not now proselytizing or promoting fundamentalism in China or in Russia... The Russians are unabashed in saying that they sell these weapons as a commercial deal... If Russia and China have perceived self-interest at stake, how can one change the equation? It is a question of what do you have that they want. The Chinese have trade they want with the US, certain technologies they want from the US, certain recognition they want. The Russians just got this pact with the US on this nuclear issue, which maybe could have been used for leverage. If you are going to do this, you have to go all the way. People have to know you are deadly serious... How optimistic are you that Iran can be deterred short of military action? It has to be. Can Syria be drawn away from Iran? We shouldn't write off any opportunities to peel off dangers to Israel. Syria's [partnership with Iran] is really not a natural alliance, a necessary alliance, but it is very problematic in terms of Hizbullah, Hamas, Lebanon, Israel... Last year, you went to Damascus with messages from Olmert to Assad. Are you involved now? I came back and saw all the commotion... There were certain initiatives that were laid out to us when we were in Syria, but I would not pursue any of them because of the reaction that we received here in Israel. Hopefully the course of action that Israel is now pursuing is the one that will produce results, first of all freeing the two young soldiers who were kidnapped, Ehud [Goldwasser] and Eldad [Regev]. I carry their dog tags - I have them upstairs - because they are a symbol of the security Israel must have, and because they are young people. Do you think Israel is safer and more secure after two terms of the Bush presidency? Would a Democratic presidency be as supportive? A Democratic presidency would be very supportive. I don't know what the measure is of President Bush's support. I know people here think he has been very supportive. We don't have peace yet. I would hope that under a Democratic president that we would. But I have said in every way that I support President Bush's efforts for peace in the Middle East. We have a Congress that is Democratic now, and is strongly supportive of Israel, and when it was Republican it was strongly supportive of Israel. Should Barack Obama get the nomination and be the president of the US, he would be a strong friend of Israel, as he has been a strong friend of Israel. Again, though, do you think Israel is safer and more secure after two terms of the Bush presidency - in the context of Iraq, and the consequent emboldening of Iran. My opposition to the war in Iraq is well known. It has not brought stability to the region and it has undermined the ability of our military to address challenges to our security and those of our friends, wherever they may occur. It has diverted attention from the real war on terrorism, which is in Afghanistan. You've met here with Defense Minister Barak, and he said that he asked you when you look at Gaza to think of missiles coming from Tijuana into San Diego. Would you view a widespread Israel military action in Gaza as legitimate now to stop the rocket fire? Again, Israel makes its own decisions about its own security. I would hope that that is something that could have been avoided. [But] Minister Barak was very direct in his presentation to us about what the possibilities were. There are those who are concerned about Obama - that he has too forgiving a view of humanity and essentially believes that people can be persuaded and won over and ultimately hold to a live-and-let-live attitude. The concern is that this will be abused by Iran, and that by negotiating with Iran you will be legitimizing the regime, and that there is very little time, and these are really bad people. The Iranian people are not bad. No, I mean the regime. The regime is, but you always have to be concerned about the people as well. Barack Obama is a real leader. And to be a real leader you have to be prepared to fight in order to make peace, and I think he is prepared to do that. Young people today as I travel throughout the world, in the Middle East and other places, are really tired of war, and want to know if their leaders know how to make the decisions necessary to end war and to turn their attention to building their economy and stopping global warming and making life in the future better for them. That doesn't mean that you don't recognize danger where there is danger. But it also means that the message that you send is one of strength - strength in your values and strength in your willingness to protect those values. I know that it is the interest of some, the Republican Party and their friends, to try to portray Barack Obama in a way that actually says he shouldn't be president of the United States. I totally disagree. I think he is fully prepared to be the commander in chief, and if you were in Washington, DC, I would tell you all the reasons why our commander in chief in the US has failed us. Olmert always used to say that one way or another Bush would stop Iran going nuclear. We don't see that happening. Can you say that, one way or another, an Obama presidency would ensure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon? One way or another, you're concerned about Iran being farther down the road eight years later, after President Bush's presidency. Explain that to me. What's so good about that? Indeed, the fear is that the confidence Israel had [in Bush stopping Iran] was misplaced. So I'm asking about the potential next administration. It is important for Iran not to have a nuclear weapon. I know Barack Obama shares that view. The situation has been exacerbated by the passage of time. I know that Barack Obama would meet the challenge we have in terms of Iran. And he may do it in a larger way. I don't know how you define strength here. But in the US we define strength not only in terms of our military might, and our willingness to use it. That's important. But we [also] define [strength] in terms of our values and how we can attract others to a place where we can keep the peace without making war, but not taking war off the table. I'm sure we define strength in the same way. I'm certain that you do. Israel is a country of values. We learn from each other. We support each other. We draw strength from each other. That is the value of our friendship. [At this point, the interview ended, but after some small talk Pelosi added further comments for the record on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:] A new president always has a new opportunity to come in with his or her values, his or her strategy for how to make the world a safer place and the future better for all of mankind. Recognizing the dangers, understanding our strengths, and using the leverage that is available, how do we get this [Israeli-Palestinian accord] done? Let's [set] our goal, [set up] a reasonable timetable... and let's get this done... Let's not waste time. The roadmap is there. But it hasn't produced a result yet that we want. Whether you have confidence that Barack Obama can do this or not, he simply has to. But let's hope the president accomplishes this in the last year of his term. He's determined to do so. He's reiterated it. I'm very excited about either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama [becoming president] because they would bring a fresh approach, separate from some of the other problems that our reputation has taken on, the loss of reputation that has hindered our ability to use our leverage... and play the role that America is intended to play. People say, "Be the leader and stop that war in Iraq."