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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 9-30-12

In his recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad joined the general pile on against the American presidential campaign. Trying to mock American democracy, he asked “Are we to believe that those who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on election campaigns have the interests of the people of the world at their hearts?” Well, I argue, the answer is “yes.”

Without millions of dollars spent in political campaigns, it would be impossible for candidates to communicate with the people — and make their case that their vision is indeed best not only for Americans but for others throughout the world. Ahmadinejad said that  “Despite what big political parties claim in the capitalistic countries, the money that goes into election campaigns is usually nothing but an investment.” Here, he is correct. The money is an “investment”; an investment in the democratic process.

I am not naïve. I know that too many plutocrats hold too much sway over the American political conversation. I know that too many politicians spend far too much time dialing for dollars rather than politicking with the people. Still, it is hard to take advice from a political hooligan who used violence to secure his own re-election, which a majority of the Iranian people seems to have opposed. And it reflects a lack of proportion in the rhetorical world of the UN, that Ahmadinejad would be tempted to take a very legitimate criticism that raises important questions and dilemmas regarding the mechanics of the American campaign and use it to try delegitimizing American democracy and America itself.

This tyrant’s tirade should remind us to view our current frustrations with the current campaign in context. Yes, there is much that could be improved in the campaign. Yes, the debates we are about to witness will pivot far too much on theatrical skills rather than political messaging. But we should not take the magic of the campaign for granted. This includes the power granted the people to change course, the efforts the President of the United States and his opponent are investing in communicating with the people, and the stability, peace, harmony, and order underlying what has been and will probably continue to be a non-violent, surprisingly efficient, deeply democratic exercise involving tens of millions of voters either validating the incumbent or gently but firmly replacing him, with no tanks in the streets, no thugs manipulating results.

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-20-10

A year ago, on January 20, 2009, Barack Obama was the avatar of American hope, the yes we can man, promising to redeem America – and the world. A year later, his election to the presidency remains his greatest accomplishment. But his anniversary comes during a slump. His first Christmas in office was ruined by al-Qaida’s attempt to down a commercial jet, mocking his efforts to end the war on terror.

His first New Year’s Day in office marked the passing of a deadline he imposed on Iran as it gallops toward nuclear status, which the mullahs contemptuously ignored. And his first anniversary coincided with the stunning loss of what Democrats arrogantly called “Ted Kennedy’s seat” to a Republican upstart. The Massachusetts mess reflects a national problem. Polls show independent voters abandoning Obama on an unprecedented scale, even as Democrats still support the rookie president.

In fairness, being president in 2009 was not easy. When Obama started running, he, like most people, assumed the good times would continue. Bill Clinton can tell his successor that it is a lot more fun to preside over prosperity than manage a recession.

But many of Obama’s problems are Obama’s fault. In 2008, candidate Obama promised to lead from the center. He sang a song of modern American nationalism, a “yes we can” credo of working together, seeking the national sweet spot where most Americans could agree.

In his best-selling book The Audacity of Hope, Obama promised to govern as a post-Reagan liberal, understanding that big government solutions cannot answer every American problem, that culture counts and that forging compromise and building consensus could move America beyond a politics of slim, polarizing victories and partisan vilification.

Alas, in his big push for health care reform, Obama deputized the partisan, ideologically-charged Democrats in Congress to draft the legislation, and accepted pushing for a marginal victory rather than nurturing a broad-based bipartisan coalition

The Republicans share the blame. The party of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush has become the party of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, shrill, demagogic, adolescent, obstructionist. Quick to criticize but slow to envision constructive alternatives, the Republicans have been the party of “no we won’t” to Obama’s “yes we can.”

AS OBAMA deepens the budget deficit, Republicans suffer from deficient leadership. On Sunday, when Obama campaigned in Massachusetts for Martha Coakley, her opponent Scott Brown held a “people’s rally” without national politicians, generating star power from a pitcher, Curt Schilling, a quarterback, Doug Flutie, and an actor, John Ratzenberger, who played the kooky mailman Cliff Clavin on Cheers.

Still, Obama’s healing magic was supposed to transcend the partisan divisions, and his efforts have been too half-hearted given the depth of the divide. The president needed to serve up serious models of reconciliation and joint envisioning on health care rather than simply serving cookies to some Republican congressional guests at last year’s Super Bowl.

Abroad, America’s enemies have been even more uncooperative. Obama has shown Carteresque instincts, punishing friends while kowtowing to enemies, appeasing dictators while disappointing dissidents, viewing terrorism as a police matter not a military threat. All too often, his instincts have been wrong. He has been far too measured in reacting to the “Green Revolution” in Iran, protecting his thus far feeble outreach to the mullahs while underestimating just how much he could have helped Iran’s protesters given the international pop star he has become.

He first reacted to the Fort Hood massacre legalistically, treating it as a regrettable criminal deviation rather than as a link in an unholy jihadist chain targeting Americans, Westerners, innocents. And by embracing the narrative that Israeli settlements are the biggest obstacles to Middle East peace, Obama clumsily bolstered Palestinian rejectionists, who happily placed more preconditions on Israel before even beginning negotiations while shifting attention away from their genocidal refusal to accept its existence, the true heart of the problem.

Nevertheless, Obama has disappointed his leftist allies by staying in Iraq, sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and approving drone air strikes in Pakistan. These moves reflect the kind of centrist pragmatism Obama peddled in his campaign, rather than the knee-jerk leftism he has too frequently relied on in fighting the recession, seeking a needed solution to the health care problem and dealing with Iran, the Palestinians and the Saudis.

HEREIN LIES the path to redemption. Americans still like their new president and want him to succeed. “No Drama, Obama” has assembled a strong team with few embarrassments, scandals or distractions from the people’s business, thus far. Obama himself has come across as serious, sober, scandal-free and still seductive, not yet frittering away all that rhetorical and political magic he deployed so effectively in 2008 to dazzle America and the world.

In the 1980s, conservatives used to cry “Let Reagan be Reagan,” urging White House aides to banish the too-pragmatic, centrist and accommodating Reagan leading America in favor of the right-wing anti-communist they adored. Today, pragmatists and centrists must cry “Let Obama be Obama,” urging his aides to banish the big-government-oriented, budget-busting, war-on-terror-negating, 1960s liberal he appeared so frequently to be this past year in favor of the more moderate, restrained, realistic, post-partisan visionary he promised to be last year.

It is true that, historically few presidents have been able to build popularity their second year, and that it has long been difficult for presidents to free themselves from the gravitational pull of a congressional majority. But Barack Obama did not become president by remaining imprisoned by historical precedents.

Just as his “yes we can” campaign broke free of the shackles of the past, in this, his sophomore year, America’s rookie president must break free from the shackles of liberal Democratic orthodoxy.

In 2004, Barack Obama wowed America with a vision of a 21st century, post-baby-boomer liberal nationalism. He synthesized the liberal idealism of the ’60s with the conservative anti-government skepticism of the ’80s, balancing the selfishness of the 1980s with the altruism of the 1960s, while embracing America as a positive, powerful force for freedom and justice in the world without delusions that undermine the primary national mission of self-preservation. Let us hope that Obama sets the “reset button” on his own presidency in 2010, for his sake, America’s sake and the world’s sake.

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 and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-20-08

Although conflict fuels political campaigns, election contests also illuminate the political consensus. It is as important to understand where candidates agree as to see where they disagree. In the second, foreign-policy-oriented debate between the two presidential nominees, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama demonstrated that they both agree that Iran threatens America and the world.

“And our challenge right now is the Iranians continue on the path to acquiring nuclear weapons, and it’s a great threat,” one of the nominees said. “It’s not just a threat — threat to the state of Israel. It’s a threat to the stability of the entire Middle East.” His rival proclaimed: “We cannot allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. It would be a game-changer in the region. Not only would it threaten Israel, our strongest ally in the region and one of our strongest allies in the world, but it would also create a possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.” Only the most devoted partisans could identify which nominee made which statement – and only the most devoted partisans could find a basis anywhere in those statements for them to clash. Obama’s earlier stated willingness to negotiate without preconditions haunts him. But this question of preconditions is a skirmish about tactics not a war about fundamentals.

Tragically, this broad American consensus against Iran’s going nuclear is undermined by European ambivalence – and cravenness. The latest reminder came from Germany’s Ambassador to Iran who allowed his military attache to attend an Iranian military parade in Tehran last month. The parade featured the usual calls to destroy Israel – and America.

Anticipating November 5, the day AFTER the election, Americans must start emphasizing these points of bipartisan agreement, to accelerate what will be a necessary healing process. Anticipating January 20, 2009, Inauguration Day, Americans must start thinking about the consensus the new president can count on – along with the strategic threats he will face.

The Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. just released a noteworthy report offering a blueprint for the next president to follow in approaching Iran. (Full disclosure – I am a Visiting Scholar at the Center but did not work on the report). The report is essential reading for the two candidates, their advisors, and every concerned Westerner. Deeming a nuclear weapons-capable Iran “strategically untenable,” the report says that, whoever wins the presidential election will have the “formidable task” of forging an effective bipartisan policy within the United States – along with a muscular multilateral policy abroad.

Balancing adeptly between scholarship and strategy, the report analyzes Iran’s past and present while presenting a thoughtful, integrated approach to nudge that country toward a more peaceful future. Reflecting the sensibilities of the project director, Dr. Michael Makovsky, a distinguished diplomatic historian, the report includes historical analysis showing that the media caricature of Iran as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s duchy is simplistic. There are complex historical, political and economic forces that can be channeled to America’s advantage. The new president will have to mix diplomatic, informational, and economic strategies, reinforced by possible military options. The task force, headed by former Senators Chuck Robb and Dan Coats, advocates European cooperation, predetermined timetables for negotiation, and formidable, effective sanctions.
Oil remains at the heart of the issue. America will have to consider blockading first Iran’s gasoline imports, then its oil exports, if negotiations fail. Calling for a “comprehensive strategy” and “vigorous execution” – both of which have been sorely lacking – these experts deem the military option “feasible” but a “last resort.” The authors detail just how problematic – and destabilizing – resorting to violence would be. But here is the great conundrum. To be strong enough to avoid going military, and ready to launch if necessary, America has to build better alliances and pre-position military assets in the region immediately.
The scariest conclusion estimates that once Iran had an “adequate supply of low-enriched uranium” — which it might acquire within a year or possibly sooner — Iran could then enrich 20 kilograms of highly enriched uranium in “four weeks or less,” thus becoming “nuclear-weapons capable.” The most reassuring call is for “leverage building,” the process whereby America and her allies find just the right pressure points to avert this potential strategic disaster. The examples of John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis and George H.W. Bush during the crisis prompted by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait are more instructive – and inspirational – than George W. Bush’s overreach in Iraq. “[I]t is not too late for sanctions and economic coercion to work,” the authors insist. “Despite near record oil prices, Iran’s economy remains weak. While the United States, its European allies, and the United Nations have imposed some sanctions on Tehran, each has a range of more biting economic tools at their disposal.”

Although the authors pull their political punches in true bipartisan spirit, the current administration’s failures haunt the report. The initial mishandling of the Iraq war emboldened Iran and undermined confidence in a military option, if it becomes necessary. Moreover, the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that underestimated Iran’s commitment to going nuclear lessened pressure on this rogue regime. Still, charting a bipartisan and multidimensional approach for the next president is the best way to progress, without bogging down in partisan recriminations.

Bipartisanship is easily hailed and just as easily ignored, especially during an increasingly ugly election campaign. This report reminds us that the most serious challenges any nation faces transcend party. All Americans suffer from the stock market woes just as they are equally threatened by a nuclear Iran. Without ignoring partisan differences, without reducing complex issues to apple-pie generalities, America’s leaders have to lead away from partisan recrimination and toward national action. These kinds of bipartisan reports on these kinds of transcendent, existential national issues are helpful reminders of all that unites Americans – and useful roadmaps toward the kinds of strategies needed during this precarious time.

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HNN, 9-18-08

Senator Hillary Clinton’s refusal to attend the major rally called for Monday September 22 in New York against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s UN appearance is outrageous — as is the organizers’ subsequent decision to disinvite Sarah Palin. Back in August, Senator Clinton had agreed to attend. She abruptly pulled out this week because the Republican nominee Sarah Palin also agreed to appear. This move suggests that Senator Clinton hates Governor Palin and the Republicans more than she hates Iran’s Ahmadinejad, despite his sexism, homophobia and advocacy of genocide.

The explanation Senator Clinton’s office gave for the shift was petulant and ignorant. Apparently, Clinton felt blindsided by news of Palin’s appearance. Palin’s “attendance was news to us, and this was never billed to us as a partisan political event,” Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman, Philippe Reines, told the New York Times. “Senator Clinton will therefore not be attending.” Upset by the controversy, a day later the organizers declared that no elected officials would attend, to keep the event “nonpartisan.” But as Senators John McCain and Barack Obama showed in their joint appearance on September 11, sometimes political rivals have to stop opposing each other, even during election season. Imagine how powerful a message the American people would have sent to Iran had their two leading women politicians stood together during the presidential campaign against Ahmadinejad and Iran’s nuclear-hungry mullahocracy.

Of course, Palin’s planned appearance was not simply altruistic and of course it had partisan aims. Politicians never stop prospecting for votes, especially during tough elections. And Palin’s willingness to protest against Ahmadinejad was part of her quest for legitimacy in foreign policy as well as a play for Jewish votes. Hillary Clinton’s initial decision to attend the rally also was partisan as was her decision to boycott this important round in the popular fight against Iran. It is not surprising that Clinton recoiled at the thought of helping Palin’s quest in any way, but it is disappointing that Clinton succumbed to those feelings, given the seriousness of the Iranian threat.

The organizers did not need the rally to be nonpartisan but bipartisan. A nonpartisan rally limits the guest list to apolitical people such as the writer Elie Wiesel, who is planning to lend his powerful moral voice to the effort. But the organizers initially understood that in the United States, power resides with partisan politicians. The rally would have been most effective had it been bipartisan – with influential representatives from both sides of the aisle. It is surprising that Senator Clinton and then the organizers failed to understand that distinction between bipartisan and nonpartisan. It is also unrealistic for Senator Clinton to walk around pretending that Sarah Palin has not become America’s newest political superstar.

The comic sensation of the week is a skit from NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler imitating Palin and Clinton, respectively. The skit imagines the two of them uniting to battle sexism. On Monday, life could have outdone art. In fact, in addition to denouncing Ahmadinejad, Senator Hillary Clinton could have helped remind Americans of the many things that unite them, even during this campaign. Instead, Hillary Clinton played the partisan – and diminished her own moral standing in the process.

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, September 10, 2008

A JPost.com exclusive blog

September 11 - 7 years on

September 11 – 7 years on
Photo: AP [file]

While much of the presidential campaign excitement this week stems from John McCain’s Sarah Palin-assisted post-convention surge in popularity, it is worth remembering the seventh anniversary of 9/11 which fell this Thursday.

American politics remains defined by that trauma, for better and worse. For better, because underestimating the danger Islamist terrorists pose endangers all Westerners. The only way to ensure that the nearly three thousand victims of Osama Bin Laden in 2001 did not die in vain, is to remain vigilant, working to prevent future attacks. For worse, because a politics solely defined by 9/11 neglects today’s economic, social, cultural, diplomatic and political challenges. As with all traumas, America’s candidates should remember past horrors without being imprisoned by them.

On this score, the two candidates – and their parties – pose an interesting contrast. Barack Obama and the Democrats seem to risk forgetting the lessons of 9/11. Democrats barely mentioned terrorism or 9/11 during their convention. Moreover, their disgust with George W. Bush’s policy has soured too many on the entire War against Terror while misleading them that Bush somehow triggered the troubles. Democrats must remember that al Qaida declared war on America during Bill Clinton’s enlightened reign, when America was actively seeking peace in the Middle East.

Republicans, on the other hand, cannot use the continuing threat of terrorism as an excuse to justify ignoring America’s economic, energy, and health crises. It is frustrating to watch as Republicans fail to encourage serious alternatives to oil, considering the estimated $700 billion America pumps annually into many oil-saturated, terrorist-friendly regimes. Welcome steps toward energy independence would change the geopolitical conditions that have financed terrorists.

Underlying this division is a tactical debate between Democrats who tend to favor deploying “soft power” and Republicans who favor “hard power.” This clash plays right into the ongoing debate about which candidate is a better friend to Israel. Obama Democrats tend to trust that soft power — diplomacy — will help Israel survive in the longrun. McCain Republicans tend to reverse Winston Churchill’s famous maxim, believing that for the hard-bitten Islamist radicals of al Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, “war-war” not “Jaw-jaw” is the only alternative. Of course, the best response to terrorism, the best way to support Israel, is with a deft mix of soft and hard power, demonstrating a shrewd diplomatic touch backed up by a willingness and readiness to be tough when necessary.

More broadly, this anniversary should compel both candidates to remember what unites them as Americans – in opposing terror, supporting Israel, and facing other challenges as well. Political campaigns emphasize the differences between candidates, creating a series of false contrasts. Just because John McCain is passionately anti-terror, Barack Obama is not pro-terror. Just because Barack Obama is in favor of preserving civil liberties even amid the terrorist threat, John McCain is not against civil liberties.

Even amid the presidential campaign tensions, both candidates should make sure to affirm their and their country’s consensus against terror and for civil liberties. Barack Obama should give a speech detailing where he agrees with George W. Bush’s anti-terror strategy – before highlighting the disagreements. John McCain should identify what constitutional limitations he accepts when fighting terrorism – before justifying the emergency measures he feels the war warrants. Such statements would shrink the partisan battlefield, emphasizing the consensus Americans share with their two presumptive nominees in abhorring terror and cherishing the Constitution.

Seven years ago, on a beautiful September Tuesday, Osama bin Laden’s terrorists did not distinguish between Democrats and Republicans, blacks and whites, Muslims or non-Muslims, or even Americans and non-Americans. They killed indiscriminately, brutally. Living as we all do in a post 9/11 world, those who aspire to lead Western countries responsibly must reaffirm a common commitment to combating Islamist terrorism – and ensure that the nightmare of 9/11 never recurs.

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