Analyze This: The resonance of Iowa

Why Obama's and Huckabee's rise matters to Jews and Israel.

barack obama 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
barack obama 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
As we prepare to welcome the current US president on his first visit in office to Israel, the American people have formally begun the process of selecting his successor. While almost all eyes here will be focusing on lame-duck George W. Bush this week, some attention should also be paid from this corner to the unfolding of a campaign that has already taken surprising turns, with consequences for both Israel and the American Jewish community. The results from Thursday's Iowa caucuses have already shaken up both the Republican and Democratic political establishments by producing results that few would have predicted just a few months ago: The emergence of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee as the GOP victor, and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's upset victory over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic race. Huckabee's sudden vault to prominence out of political obscurity makes for a particularly striking storyline that has resonance well beyond this particular race. An ordained Southern Baptist minister who has made his Christian faith a prominent selling point of his campaign, Huckabee succeeded in Iowa by energizing the state's large evangelical community. By injecting religious faith into the presidential race more prominently than any prior mainstream contender, he has raised serious questions as to the degree to which a candidate's spiritual beliefs should be a litmus test in assessing his or her suitability for office. This is particularly so for Jewish Republicans who have in the past welcomed a "Judeo-Christian" alliance with the Christian Right on the basis of common conservative values and support for Israel. But Huckabee's explicitly denominational appeal appeared too much for some prominent Jewish pundits on the Right, including Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who last month wrote: "Huckabee is running a very effective ad in Iowa about religion. 'Faith doesn't just influence me,' he says on camera, 'it really defines me.' The ad then hails Huckabee as a 'Christian leader.' Forget the implications of the idea that being a 'Christian leader' is some special qualification for the presidency of a country whose Constitution (Article VI) explicitly rejects any religious test for office. Just imagine that Huckabee were running one-on-one in Iowa against Joe Lieberman... If he had run the same ad in those circumstances, it would have raised an outcry. The subtext - who's the Christian in this race? - would have been too obvious to ignore, the appeal to bigotry too clear." On foreign policy issues, Huckabee is a complete neophyte who famously professed ignorance of the recent controversial National Intelligence Estimate on Iran a day after it was released. Like most Evangelicals, he expresses strong personal support for Israel, yet he did not mention this country in a recent essay in Foreign Policy magazine that dealt at length with other issues in this region. Again, he earned the disapproval of some prominent Jewish neoconservatives by taking issue with the Bush administration's "bunker mentality" and staking out a different position on Iran, writing: "After President Bush included Iran in the 'axis of evil,' everything went downhill fast. Whereas there can be no rational dealings with al-Qaida, Iran is a nation-state seeking regional clout and playing the game of power politics we understand and can skillfully pursue. We cannot live with al-Qaida, but we might be able to live with a contained Iran. Iran will not acquire nuclear weapons on my watch. But before I look parents in the eye to explain why I put their son's or daughter's life at risk, I want to do everything possible to avoid conflict. We have substantive issues to discuss with Teheran." Huckabee's Iowa victory should not be overrated; he is unlikely to enjoy similar success in state primaries where Christian conservatives don't play such a prominent role, is still a long-shot for the GOP nomination, and has virtually no chance at the presidency. Still, his early success has unquestionably altered the character of the Republican nomination race. It has seriously damaged the prospects of two front-runners who are popular with the party's Jewish supporters, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani: The former because it demonstrated that Romney's Mormonism is a factor with the GOP's evangelical voters, and the latter because it shows that Christian conservatives still emphasize "social values" issues to such a degree that they will not support a relative moderate such as Giuliani despite his strengths on security and foreign policy affairs. The candidate who most benefits from Huckabee's Iowa victory is Arizona Sen. John McCain, who enjoys surging poll numbers and is now tipped as the favorite in Tuesday's important New Hampshire primary. On issues such as Israel and Iran, McCain is well within the Republican mainstream, and might enjoy more Jewish support than any GOP candidate save Giuliani. On the Democratic side, Barack Obama's win over Hillary Clinton has shattered the aura of inevitability, the idea that the New York senator was destined to get a shot at returning to the White House this time around. Clinton still leads by wide margins in most national party polls, but that could change fast if Obama takes New Hampshire this week. Like Huckabee, Obama is a newcomer to foreign policy issues, having served only two years in national office. Questions have been raised about his commitment to Israel, especially in light of his connections to figures in Chicago's African-American community viewed as pro-Palestinian. Obama sought to allay those concerns with a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last year, in which he put himself squarely in the Democratic consensus by expressing strong sympathy for Israeli security concerns, within the context of supporting a Palestinian state emerging from the current negotiating framework. Yet while also expressing a determination to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability, he made clear, as he has elsewhere, that his strategy would include direct talks with Teheran. Obama's Iowa victory, the first ever by an African-American in a presidential race state vote, is being hailed by his supporters as a revolutionary development. On foreign policy issues, though, at least within the context of his own party, his approach represents much more of an ideological continuum, rather than a break, with the past. Still, the ascension of an African-American to the White House, and of one who boasts Muslim descent on his paternal side, would undoubtedly be a watershed in American politics with significant international impact. Finally, the most important aspect of the Iowa caucuses may in the end not have been the results themselves, but the voter turnout. For Democrats, it was a record-setting number that was more than twice that of Republicans, in a swing state won by George W. Bush in 2004. So, as Bush tours Jerusalem this week trying to burnish his legacy, handing that down to a like-minded successor in 2008 now looks more unlikely. [email protected]