Nation & World

Spirited discussion brings some clarity to Obama’s strategy on Middle East

5 min read

In the final days before the U.S. presidential election, the two leading candidates were too busy dashing from one rally to the next in a few battleground states to make it to the reliably blue Bay State in person.

But in their absence, their views on foreign policy, particularly Middle East policy, were presented by two notable Harvard graduates — Kerry Healey ’82 and Steve Grossman M.B.A. ’69 at a forum last week (Oct. 30) at Rosovsky Hall, home of Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel.

Bernie Steinberg, Hillel president and the moderator of the forum, introduced the event as intended to be “in the spirit of conversation and education, not debate.” The conversation, he pointed out, was largely about parsing the nuances of policy differences between two staunch friends of Israel.

Civility reached such a level, in fact, that at one point a questioner from the floor observed to the two surrogates, “You both seem so reasonable talking together … and I’d like to contrast that with the campaign.”

But there were differences — on Iraq policy, on policy toward Iran, and on matters of diplomatic style, among other points.

Healey, former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts and current fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, represented Sen. John McCain. She called him a “longtime, steadfast supporter of Israel” who believes the U.S.-Israeli alliance “must stand forever.” McCain, she said, wants to ensure that Israel maintains its “qualitative military edge” and sees Iran, with its desire for nuclear arms, as the primary danger in the region.

Grossman, a businessman who has chaired both the Democratic National Committee and the Massachusetts Democratic Party, spoke for Sen. Barack Obama. He stressed the Illinois senator’s “pluperfect record on Israel” and noted that even many of those who oppose his candidacy for president — neoconservative pundit William Kristol, Sen. Joe Lieberman, and Matthew Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition — nonetheless agree with his positions on Israel.

On the subject of U.S. presence in Iraq, both candidates want to bring U.S. troops home, and both say they will heed the advice of military leaders on the ground about timing. But Obama plans to draw down troops at the rate of one to two brigades a month, whereas McCain resists setting any such timetable. As president, Obama would seek economic sanctions to shut off the flow of hard currency that allows Iran to make trouble for American and Israeli interests, Grossman said. “Barack Obama has been clear that the biggest beneficiary of our presence in Iraq has been Iran.”

Healey countered, “Keeping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is an existential issue for Israel. John McCain understands this.” He reasons, however, that it’s unwise to discuss specific tactics in advance. As president, McCain would pressure the Iranians to give up their efforts to build nuclear weapons — and would be willing to push beyond the United Nations if the international organization won’t go far enough.

On the question of support for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which declares the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, Healey said that McCain was in favor of the amendment (which passed the Senate in September 2007). Obama was not, Grossman explained, because it was attached to a bill increasing U.S. troop strength in Iraq. (Neither candidate was actually present in the Senate when the vote was made on this legislation.)

The discussants talked about the question of diplomatic style next. Healey observed, “One thing that has been discussed for a long time has been the difference of diplomatic styles” between the two candidates. Obama drew criticism during the primary campaign for his expressed willingness to sit down with controversial world leaders. But Healey stressed that McCain doesn’t oppose diplomacy: “McCain has been clear that he wants diplomacy going on at a lower level — secretary of state or lower.” The issue for McCain, Healey said, is that “of giving someone a forum” that might advance obnoxious views and gain credibility on the diplomatic stage. A related point was the two camps’ different views of the back-channel talks under way between Israel and Syria. The Republicans have generally opposed these, Grossman said, but Obama does not. “Two sovereign nations” can talk with whomever they please, Grossman noted.

Subtle but real differences in attitudes of the candidates toward Russia emerged. McCain’s swift denunciation of Moscow’s aggression in August was an example of his long experience getting him “to the right point almost immediately,” Healey said. Obama’s response was was slower and more tempered — although in the end his position was “fairly similar” to McCain’s. Grossman defended Obama on this point: “Good judgment sometimes requires you to take a look at an issue from more than one side.”

Despite what Grossman contended was Obama’s stellar record on Israel and other issues of interest to Jewish voters, the senator’s campaign has taken criticism because of certain of its supporters. And at the Hillel forum, Grossman was asked about Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser; David Bonior, former majority whip in the U.S. House; and Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader. About these and other Obama supporters who are perceived by some to be less than friendly toward Israel, Grossman drew a clear line on the senator’s behalf between those who are supporting his candidacy and those who are advising him on Middle East policy.

The forum was sponsored by Harvard Hillel, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom (the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace), the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance, and Harvard Students for Israel. Co-sponsors were Temple Beth Israel, Waltham, Mass.; Temple Beth Shalom, Cambridge; Beth El Temple Center, Belmont, Mass.; and the Union for Progressive Zionists.