James Fallows is disgusted and bewildered by the Clinton campaign’s circulation of this attack on Gen. McPeak, the retired Air Force Chief of Staff and an Obama military advisor, and Ambinder essentially ridiculed the attack as silly and has followed up with another post on the basic irrelevance to Obama of what McPeak may or may not have said five years ago. Since Fallows is in Asia a lot of the time and perhaps hasn’t followed the campaign that closely, it’s understandable that he would be shocked by the Clintons’ use of an AmSpec article, but for more than a year the Clintons have been engaged in a weird kind of rapprochement with all the conservative media institutions that warred against them in the ’90s. They have either made connections with or started citing favourably Drudge, Newsmax and, just this week, Scaife and AmSpec. (A cynic might remark that Obama really can bring people together–to stop him from becoming President.) At AmSpec‘s blog, Philip Klein takes on Ambinder and defends some of the Goldberg article.
The offending part of the 2003 McPeak interview, which is a long interview filled mostly by McPeak’s military expertise and some excellent comments on the problems he had with the war, centered on this:
McPeak complained of that the “lack of playbook for getting Israelis and Palestinians together at…something other than a peace process….We need to get it fixed and only we have the authority with both sides to move them towards that. Everybody knows that.”
The interviewer asked McPeak: “So where’s the problem? State? White House?”
McPeak replied: “New York City. Miami. We have a large vote — vote, here in favor of Israel. And no politician wants to run against it.”
Of course, there is a large vote in support of Israel, not limited to American Jewish voters (most of whom support much less militaristic, “pro-Israel” policies in the Near East), or else there would scarcely be much controversy or political relevance to what Obama’s views on this subject are. The full context of the interview shows McPeak going on to discuss other voting blocs, particularly Christian Zionists, that are influential in shaping policy. I think McPeak’s explanation was insufficient, but it was not therefore wrong, and it was hardly “bigoted.”
It is amazing that anyone can find McPeak’s comments particularly objectionable. It is true that resistance to change in U.S. Israel policy is not located only in New York and Miami, but there are certainly enough voters and donors there to make it unwise for any local or national politician who wants their support to make any significant departures from a conventional “pro-Israel” line. A candidate who deviates from that line risks a lot more than he has to gain, since there aren’t many voting blocs that would reward a candidate for taking a significantly different view, or they are geographically concentrated in just a few places around the country. Of course, we would not bat an eye if someone said that Cuban-Americans in south Florida make it very difficult to change Cuba policy, but it is somehow beyond the pale to say that there are, in fact, serious political consequences for taking a less “pro-Israel” position, when we all know that there are. Indeed, McPeak’s one response that has become the focus of criticism understates the political pressure.
What is so amazing about all of this is that we can all acknowledge that John Hagee’s endorsement of McCain (there it is again!) is politically significant, because Hagee, who is a Christian Zionist of a sort, is quite influential with evangelical voters and also heads the lobby Christians United for Israel. So there is also a “large vote” in Texas and elsewhere around the country in support of Israel, and a candidate would jeopardise his chances of getting those votes if he took a less “pro-Israel” position. Hagee is a living example of exactly what McPeak is talking about in the interview, but instead of taking that into account McPeak’s critics seem intent on portraying him as anti-Israel and, in Goldberg’s words, “bigoted.”
Now Philip Klein has just posted something about Obama’s past views on the subject, including his dinner with Edward Said and reported statements that Obama had kept his concerns about Palestine under wraps because he was in a difficult primary election fight in 2004. (Scott saw some potential for even-handedness in these same episodes.) In other words, Klein is suggesting that Obama is actually more pro-Palestinian than he lets on, but has downplayed this ever since because of political pressure. So it seems that McPeak is basically right that “no politician wants to run against it,” including Obama, in which case McPeak is neither “bigoted” nor necessarily wrong in what he said. Perhaps Obama has come to hold the staunch “pro-Israel” views he has had since taking office in 2005, but regardless of whether he really believes them he will not depart from them in the future for the same reason that he adopted them in the first place (if you assume that his calls for a more “even-handed” approach were sincere). It may be relevant that Nader made a point of raising Obama’s changed position on Palestine as one of the reasons why he was running, which certainly suggests that the perception on the left and among at least some Arab-Americans is that Obama has abandoned his former views.
But let’s go a bit further. Goldberg aligns McPeak, essentially baselessly, with what he calls “the Mearsheimer-Walt view that American Middle East policy is being controlled by Jews at the expense of America’s interests in the region.” This is probably the most dishonest statement in the entire article, since that isn’t the Mearsheimer-Walt view, whether as expressed in their original essay or in their book, and there is little evidence in the interview that Gen. McPeak necessarily agrees with the entire thesis put forward by the two authors. First, the Mearsheimer-Walt view is that there are a number of “pro-Israel” organisations and groups that exert political pressure and influence to advance what they regard as good policies for Israel and the United States. The point that Mearsheimer and Walt make, as those who have bothered to read the book know, is that these policies are, in their realist estimation, very bad for both states, but especially for the United States. That is their view. They do not claim and in fact they reject outright the idea that “American Middle East policy is being controlled by Jews.” In fact, anyone who would characterise their view in the way that Goldberg did has revealed that he doesn’t know what their view is, but has relied on second- or third-hand hostile accounts and should not be trusted when flinging similarly baseless allegations against someone else.
The outrage about such statements tends to come from the same people who will turn around and talk about how broad and popular “pro-Israel” sentiment is in America. Of course, when the entire political and media class makes clear that no other view is really all that respectable or worth hearing, whichever view they endorse is going to become much more widespread than it would otherwise be. When the public is reminded daily that Israel is our “reliable ally,” what little they know of anyone else in the region is usually associated with media reports of acts of violence, and anyone who questions the merits of current policy is targeted for smears, it is little wonder that people will naturally gravitate to the view that incurs no risk of ostracism or stigma.
Gen. McPeak erred slightly in that one answer, because that one response could be taken out of context (as it now has been) and used to sum up his entire view. Goldberg erred significantly in his assessment of the “Mearsheimer-Walt view” and his uncharitable characterisation of McPeak’s views as “bigoted,” for which there is no evidence in that interview or, so far as I know, anywhere else. Even if McPeak does agree with Mearsheimer and Walt’s thesis, as some seem to think Brzezinski did when he wrote a letter in defense of the two authors, Obama has already made his position clear in that episode, when he firmly rejected the thesis and distanced himself from Brzezinski’s statements. Of course, the fact that we are even discussing Obama’s potential problems with Jewish voters on account of allegedly “anti-Israel” things that his associates have said tends to support McPeak’s response in general terms. In closing, I agree with one of Fallows’ concluding lines: “I don’t like attempts to stifle argument when they occur in China, and I don’t like this in the United States.”
Update: I was wrong. The most dishonest part of Goldberg’s article is this section:
McPeak also noted: “The secret of the neoconservative movement is that it’s not conservative, it’s radical. Guys like me, who are conservatives, are upset about these neocons calling themselves conservative when they’re so radical.”
Guys like McPeak are upset because they think Jews have too much influence.
To be clear, it is Goldberg who equated neoconservatives with Jews, and he then took McPeak’s political disagreement with neoconservatives, whom he deems radical (I can’t really disagree with his assessment), and his frustration at their use of the name of conservative and twisted it into an anti-Semitic sentiment. This is really trashy, as is much of the article.
Second Update: Michael Goldfarb is on the case with what may be the most absurd statement on an Obama-related controversy this year:
Obama has a Jewish problem, whether or not it’s merely guilt by association is irrelevant. Politics is about perception, and the perception is that Obama’s one step removed from the Nation of Islam [bold mine-DL]. If he wants to get the anti-Semitic stench of Trinity United off his campaign, it’s going to take more than the all-clear from Marc Ambinder and Marty Peretz.
In other words, the smear campaign is working, and there isn’t much Obama can do to stop it, because the people who keep pushing this line of criticism against Obama have no respect for truth, as the statement in bold shows.