(photo credit: Associated Press [file])
This week, Democratic candidates for US president spoke to the National Jewish Democratic Council. What do their speeches tell us about where they would lead American foreign policy in a post-Bush era?
Among the Democrats, Sen. Barack Obama raised eyebrows by saying that, while Israel should not be asked to "take risks with respect to its security," the US "can ask Israel to say that... [there is] more than just the status quo of fear, terror, division. That can't be our long-term aspiration."
This is an unfortunate statement, since it wrongly implies that Israel has not repeatedly said such things. Worse, it suggests that Israel must be prodded to seek peace, as if this is not something that almost every Israeli citizen and leader has yearned for more deeply, perhaps, than most Americans can imagine.
It would be a mistake, however, for Israelis - who will be dramatically affected by American foreign policy - to measure American candidates solely by their attitudes toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. All express strong support for Israel, which should be accepted as sincere and reflective of the great majority of Americans.
The more pertinent question is how these candidates will steer the American ship of state through the wider storm - the global conflict between Islamo-fascism and the West, between Iran and the United States. As this conflict goes, so go the prospects for peace in this region and in the world.
On this, it is instructive to go back to what, to many Americans, now seems a strikingly prescient speech by Obama to an anti-war rally, before the US toppled Saddam Hussein.
"After September 11th... I supported this administration's pledge to hunt down and root out those who would slaughter innocents in the name of intolerance, and I would willingly take up arms myself to prevent such tragedy from happening again. I don't oppose all wars...
"What I am opposed to is a dumb war... What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne."
Setting aside the troubling attempt to pin the war in Iraq on two Jews, one of whom was long out of government, what is striking here is Obama's distinction between necessary and "dumb" war.
Whether and how the war in Iraq should have been fought is the subject of heated debate. The burning question now, though, is not just how to end it, but whether the confrontation with Iran is another "dumb war" in the Democrats' book.
Here, Sen. Hillary Clinton stood out slightly among the Democrats at the National Jewish Democratic Council, in that she went beyond the usual "all options on the table" formulation. "If we do have to take offensive military action against Iran, it would be far better if the rest of the world saw it as a last resort, not first resort, because the... consequences would be global," she said.
It is somewhat absurd to suggest, given years of European-led negotiations and painstaking UN Security Council deliberations, that the US could be understood as pursuing force as a first resort. Such statements make one wonder, for all the talk that Iran must be stopped, whether the Democrats would confront only terrorist groups, like al-Qaida, or also the regimes behind them.
Dennis Ross, who cannot be suspected of disbelief in diplomacy, wrote recently of Iran, "Why have sticks been more effective than carrots? Because... no combination of inducements can match the value of having nuclear weapons. But the value of nuclear weapons has to be weighed against the potential cost."
Ross continued: "I favor [engaging Iran], but only if it is guided by an understanding that penalties, more than inducements, are the key to altering the Iranian position."
So far, the Democratic position on Iran seems to be two parts engagement, one part hamstringing the White House, and no parts urging stronger and faster international action. If the Democrats want anyone - Americans, Israelis or Iranians - to take their foreign policy stance seriously, this balance should change.