Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Editorial: America's Choice and the Middle East

YOU ARE IN: Home Page > Topics > Iran

Colin Rubenstein


The two main US presidential candidates will be Democrat Senator Barack Obama and Republican Senator John McCain. Both have fascinating life stories, and differences in their age, upbringing, military and political experience will doubtless play a role in the choice Americans make on the first Tuesday in November. So too will proposals for improving healthcare, education, the economy, the environment and other important domestic policy issues.

Of much interest to AIR readers are statements and election promises these two men have made on Middle East issues such as Iran, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (see pp. 12-14).

In all likelihood, the Iranian nuclear issue will still be the most urgent foreign policy imperative when the new president takes office in January 2009. The urgency is likely to increase by that time and, following the Iranian rejection in mid-June of the latest “P5+1” (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) offer of various incentives for stopping uranium enrichment, so is international concern.

Fortunately, both presumptive American candidates agree that a nuclear-armed Iran is a tremendous threat to US and other vital interests and must be prevented as an urgent priority. Despite a very public disagreement about the tactical advisability of Obama’s plan for direct presidential meetings with Iranian leaders, both say they are focused on a process of tough diplomacy and sanctions, designed to maximise leverage on Iran. And both say that if all other measures fail, military action cannot be ruled out.

Moreover, as US President George Bush found during his recent tour of Europe, many other world leaders, such as France’s Nicholas Sarkozy and Britain’s Gordon Brown, are also now ready for tougher economic measures against Iran, especially in the wake of the failure of the P5+1 offer. Even strong sanctions outside the UN system look increasingly achievable.

There is therefore every reason to hope that, no matter who wins the election, the next US president will possess not only the determination, but also the strategic understanding and the supportive international environment, to accelerate an effective effort to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran before it is too late.

On the Israeli-Palestinian track, both candidates are also similar in their views. Both favour a two state resolution to the conflict. Both say Palestinian terrorism is a problem that must be solved before any Palestinian state would be viable. They also share a similar stance on continuing diplomatic isolation of Hamas until it meets the Quartet’s conditions for engagement.

Most importantly, both have shown clear signs that they understand the prerequisites of a lasting and viable two-state peace. Obama has acknowledged repeatedly that there is a strong will for peace and willingness to make concessions for it on the Israeli side, and has also said it is yet to be proven that this commitment exists among the Palestinians, particularly in their political class. McCain also certainly understands this problem.

Any prospects for lasting peace depend on ending the domination of Palestinian society by foreign-funded terror groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad; a Palestinian government that has a monopoly on the use of force and imposes the rule of law, so that a future Palestinian state will be able to credibly offer Israel security guarantees; and an end to incitement against Israel in Palestinian schools, mosques and government media. Of course, readiness to compromise on the “right of return”, Jerusalem and agreed borders is also required.

Until these conditions are achieved, no peace can credibly be built, no matter what concessions Israel is prepared to offer, as the Oslo experiment and the aftermath of the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza have proven.

Progressing to this stage will not be easy, and there are, no doubt differences between McCain and Obama as to how the prerequisites for real peace can be achieved. But half the battle is understanding what needs to be done to make an Israeli-Palestinian two state resolution viable. It appears both candidates have internalised this understanding.

It is on Iraq that the two candidates differ most. McCain has been in favour of the “surge” campaign since the beginning. This was originally a very unpopular stance, but as the surge delivered success after success, particularly in Sunni areas, McCain’s star seemed to rise accordingly.

McCain says should he win in November, the US will be in Iraq for the long haul, claiming it essential to US interests that America be seen as having comprehensively won in Iraq before withdrawing its troops.

Until recently, Obama was committed to withdrawing American combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office, leaving, much like Australia, only enough troops to secure the US embassy and diplomatic corps.

The desire to leave Iraqis in complete charge of their own country - including its security - is admirable. But pulling troops from the country before Iraqis are ready to take the reins would risk mass killings, the creation of a permanent terrorist haven, or an all-out Shi’ite-Sunni Iraqi civil war with regional states likely being dragged into the fray. Moreover, extreme Islamist actors across the region, including al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and many others, would be emboldened.

Happily, in recent weeks Obama has shifted his position somewhat, saying he will liaise with the US military leadership before making a final decision, and will adjust his plans to reflect changing circumstances as necessary.

A continuing US role remains indispensable to any hope of improving the unfortunate situation across most of the Middle East - the lack of human rights, unrepresentative governments, economic deprivation, as well as widespread violence and the growth of extremist movements and ideologies. It is promising that the next US president, whoever he is, will likely have both the determination and the strategic vision to attempt to effectively tackle the critical regional problems and challenges, which have such pervasive global ramifications.

Most recent items in: Iran