I had the privilege — along with 13,000 other delegates — of attending the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington last week. It was an extraordinarily stimulating and interesting two-and-a-half days — indeed, it was so jam-packed with speeches, panel discussions, breakout seminar discussions, luncheons, dinners, and galas that my mind is still reeling. The level of planning involved was somewhere between a Hollywood feature, a party convention, and a military operation.
You have probably heard that President Obama, in his address to AIPAC, assured the crowd that he has Israel’s back. That may or may not be true. What is undeniable is that AIPAC has Israel’s back, and that’s extremely reassuring — particularly as we’re more than likely to be facing another four years of an Obama administration, four years in which he will no longer require the support of the Jewish electorate.
Here are some of the main impressions I had of the speakers at the conference.
- President Obama spoke compellingly and with dignity, but was visibly ill at ease. He was very much on the defensive, which is, after all, only to be expected (AIPAC is hardly his home crowd, and I imagine he was glad when the speech was over). He was certainly correct to point out that it is easy for contenders not yet in office to beat the drums of war, and much harder for a sitting president to send young men and women into harm’s way. He did reference Iranian nuclear capability, rather than an Iranian bomb, as the end that must be avoided, and stated explicitly that containment is not an option. He alluded to a military option as a last resort but did not elaborate on what that might entail.
- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) projected a powerful combination of the charmingly avuncular Southern gentleman and the butt-kicking, name-taking quiet man whom you cross at your peril. He dismissed Obama’s Iran policy as flawed because of its refusal to delineate clear military consequences to Iranian provocation, and stated that if sufficient intelligence were gleaned indicating that Iran was pursuing the bomb, he would personally introduce authorization to Congress for the use of “overwhelming” military force to prevent Iran from enriching uranium to weapons-grade level. The crowd ate it up, and I confess that I’m an avid new fan.
Bibi Netanyahu was greeted like a rock star. Coming from Israel, I couldn’t help but smile at this — and he couldn’t either, joking, “Wow, it’s like in the Knesset!” to the cheering crowd. (Honestly, it must be hard for Bibi and Sara to fly home after they come to Washington.) Bibi is a gifted public speaker: he has a way of leaning on the podium with one elbow and lowering his voice conspiratorially that makes you feel as though he’s schmoozing directly with you, even though there are 13,000 other people in the room. He also has a talent for weaving that schmoozy intimacy with the deeply (and controversially) serious, as when he held up the letter from FDR’s State Department refusing to bomb Auschwitz in 1944 on the grounds that it might prompt “even more vindictive action by the Germans”. That is an extremely fraught analogy, and Bibi was quick to deny the obvious implication of a correlation between FDR and Obama (“the American government today is different”). Still, as Haaretz has pointed out, Bibi’s invoking the Holocaust was all but announcing his intention to preempt Iran. This is verbal hardball, and Bibi’s taking heat for it at home. I wonder, though, having heard some Iran experts speak (see below), whether the tough talk is itself a tactic, and an effective one, in a greater deterrence strategy. The current regime in Iran won’t back off until it’s frightened. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The ex-Sports Illustrated swimsuit pin-up turned mega-mogul Kathy Ireland, who delivered a moving speech proclaiming her support for Israel as a Christian American, is a terrific speaker and won the hearts of the whole crowd. She is also absolutely flipping gorgeous in person. Wow. (Just saying.)
- Mitt Romney, who spoke to us via satellite, spoke much more passionately and impressively than I think anybody was expecting him to (at least anyone I spoke to). He invoked a personal friendship of long standing with Bibi, which was news to me (they apparently worked together years ago at Boston Consulting Group). He used the Iran issue to make the point that he plans to expand the US military rather than reduce it, and explicitly referenced his disapproval of Obama’s granting of the 1967 borders to the Palestinians as a basis for negotiation with us. This was striking, as it underlined the irrelevance of the Palestinians at the conference (I think Romney was the first person to bring them up, and he spoke on the last day). He also said outright that “talking about a peace process right now is a bit like setting up a tent in the middle of a hurricane,” which was quite bracingly direct. And he pointedly stated that if he becomes president, his first trip will be to Jerusalem, not “to Cairo or Riyadh or Ankara.”
- Rick Santorum spoke in person even though it was Super Tuesday — the only one of the three major Republican contenders to do so. The substance of his speech was in line with the overall theme — Iran has to be stopped — but I was surprised that he didn’t take greater advantage of the opportunity to press home his affiliation with the evangelical Christian community, which has a healthy relationship with AIPAC and whose support of Israel is deeply appreciated by many members of the organization. It would have been an easy way to score some points and to differentiate himself from his Republican opponents.
- Newt Gingrich phoned it in, literally. He spoke the expected sound bytes via satellite — whizzing through them in a couple of minutes — and didn’t bother to try to appear particularly engaged. It was a strange turn and easily one of the most disappointing of the conference (the other clunker was Leon Panetta, whose speech was as long as those of Obama and Bibi but was padded, tedious and unenlightening). The weirdness of Gingrich’s performance suggested (possibly) some irritation at having to spend time talking to us on Super Tuesday, a sentiment Romney and Santorum might well have shared but were at pains to conceal.
- Liz Cheney is a stalwart friend of Israel and an attack dog toward Barack Obama. Yikes! She and Jane Harman (a former Democratic US Representative for the 36th Californian Congressional district and currently head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center) went at it tooth and nail on a panel before the full crowd (Israeli commentator Ehud Yaari was there too, but couldn’t compete with the entertainment value of the animus between the two women). Cheney cannonballed straight into the deep end of partisan politics, turning the Iran question into a referendum on Obama. She said, essentially, that the Israelis would be fools to rely either on him or on American intelligence gathering, and said that Obama has done more to “undermine and delegitimize Israel” than any other president and is more concerned with containing Israel than protecting her. The assembly was bipartisan — I met some very committed Democrats at the conference — but the overall response to Cheney was much more enthusiastic than not.
- Mike Murphy, Donna Brazile, Bill Kristol and Paul Begala had a rapid-fire wonk-fest before the capacity crowd at which they traded predictions about Super Tuesday and the presidential race in general. The numbers flew so fast it was hard to keep up, but the takeaways were that Kristol finds the Republican field depressing, Begala is quite entertaining in a cheerful, borderline crude way and gets a West Wing-y high out of mixing it up with his colleagues, Brazile is a class act, and Murphy is some kind of political gaming savant. (I knew this already from the Ricochet podcasts, but it was really something to hear live. How does he keep all that in his head?) I walked out of that one a little bewildered, but liked the fly-on-the-wall aspect of listening to four pros — particularly four pros who come from different political traditions but seem to enjoy and respect one another — hammer it out.
- I had the great good fortune to attend a fascinating seminar offered by Ali Alfoneh, an Iranian expert on Iran at the American Enterprise Institute, and Emanuele Ottolenghi, an Italian expert on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Mr. Alfoneh made an interesting and important point, and this is what I was alluding to above with reference to Netanyahu’s rather extreme posturing about Iran. He reminded the group that when George Bush was asked why he decided to invade Iraq and take down Saddam, his reply was, “That man tried to kill my Dad.” Bush subsequently took all kinds of abuse in the West and in the US for being unsophisticated, reckless and infantile. In the Middle East, however, among the more radical regimes, a different kind of notice was taken. In this region, as Alfoneh put it to laughter, “if somebody tries to kill your Dad, invading their country and starting a war is the most lenient reaction you can show.” Alfoneh said the more radical regimes, Iran in particular, were equally alarmed by Bush’s candid statement that God’s instruction was part of his motivation, another assertion that brought heaps of ridicule down on Bush’s head. Bush’s unpredictable nature “planted fear into the hearts of the Republican Guard officers,” who were sufficiently concerned that Bush was ready to use force against them that they were held in check. Obama’s verbal style, by contrast, is highly sophisticated in a way that impresses the daylights out of Western observers but does nothing but reassure the Republican Guard, which “[does] not believe, unfortunately, that President Obama is ready to use force against them in order to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.”
- I attended a tent gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which was a hoot. I learned there that Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is hilarious off the cuff, and that Michele Bachmann (R-MN) is an effortlessly terrific speaker — she addressed the group with no notes (and no TelePrompter — it was a small room), and delivered a wonderful, rousing address full of rhetorical flourishes. She’s also a knockout. She conveys a very attractive aura of sensible calm in person — a persona that could not contrast more strongly with the general depiction of her in the mainstream media during the campaign for the Republican nomination as an out-of-her-depth, jumped-up wannabe who might also be half off her rocker. I hope we haven’t seen the last of her on the national stage.
The conference was amazing not only for this astonishing line-up of speakers and panelists but for the opportunity to meet so many other Americans who are so passionately engaged. I met people from all over the country, and everyone — no matter where they fell on the political spectrum — was friendly, excited, and eager to talk. We got up at 5:30 am every morning to get through security checks and collapsed every evening, but it was a wonderful exhaustion. I thank AIPAC for putting together such a remarkable gathering — and for existing at all. These are dangerous times, and Israel needs friends like these in the US.