John McCain and Barack Obama: The Middle East and Israel Strategic Assessment

Written by INSS


June 27,  2008
Vol. 11, No. 1
Simhoni, Limor and Bart, Roni

Many theoreticians are wont to analyze international dealings as a function of either constraints and opportunities in the global system or fixed political interests, rather than a function of the influence of individual leaders. Delicately put, America’s foreign policy since September 2001 does not corroborate this approach. It is hard to imagine that had Al Gore been elected president, the US would have invaded Iraq. Similarly, the policy of Republican John McCain, if elected president, will in almost all certainty be significantly different from the policy of Democrat Barack Obama should he enter the White House. These candidates' views about American foreign policy are significantly divergent, reflecting the difference between their respective parties.


Republicans and Democrats
At least since the early twentieth century one can generally define party disputes in the United States over foreign policy as the difference between hawks and doves, although the “ornithological” identities of the parties and the derived policies are not hard and fast. In the first part of the century, Republicans were imperialists and Democrats were anti-imperialists. Later, the Republicans became more isolationist, compared with the more international-minded Democrats. In the first half of the Cold War the party in opposition almost always presented a more hawkish approach than the administration. After the Vietnam War the Democrats became doves, although in the nineties, in contrast with the Republicans, they promoted more military intervention around the world. Since 2002, the Republicans have once again tended more to be hawks and the Democrats doves. There is no reason to assume these identity inversions will not continue in the future.

Today, differences are especially noticeable in three primary parameters. In general, Republicans are willing to concede less in order to achieve multilateral international consent; they prefer to avoid dialogue with bitter enemies before the latter have tangibly demonstrated, at least in part, their changed approach; and they are more open to the idea of coercion, including military strength. Democrats tend to favor multilateralism more than unilateralism and therefore place greater value on international organizations; they are more open to dialogue, even with extremist enemies; and they prefer carrots to sticks. For example, 90 percent of Democrats believe it is important to receive the backing of the United Nations before embarking on a military operation; only 46 percent of Republicans agree. At the same time, at issue is not a dichotomy but mostly a matter of proportionality, differences in preference and emphases, and a range of positions across a spectrum.
These general affinities are reflected in the presidential candidates’ stances on the main issues on the United States' Middle East agenda: Iran, Iraq, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
McCain's parody of the Beach Boys hit at a town hall meeting – “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” reflects his conviction that an Iran with nuclear weapons constitutes an unacceptable risk.[1] He believes it is a country that supports terror and interferes with American efforts in Iraq by arming and training Shiite militias. He has claimed that the United States is facing "an evil man and a very dangerous regime," and that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons it will assume that since no country will want to confront it, it therefore has unlimited power.[2] In such a situation, it will be perceived as a threat to other countries in the Middle East that may in turn want to develop nuclear capacities of their own.

McCain is among the senators behind the decision to define the Revolutionary Guards, the military arm of the Iranian regime, as a terror organization. He has criticized Ahmadinejad’s declarations about the destruction of Israel and denial of the Holocaust, and argued that they expose the danger posed by a nuclear empowered Iran. Nonetheless, McCain prefers a diplomatic solution to the problem, emphasizes the use of “aggressive” diplomacy, and supports the imposition of significant political and economic sanctions. If the Security Council does not impose substantial sanctions on Iran, as president he will likely try to muster the support of leading countries that will put this into effect, and will also aim to delegitimize the Iranian government. McCain does not explicitly mention replacing the Iranian government, but he talks about generating internal discussion in the country to demonstrate that the government does not represent public opinion, rather the aspirations of an extreme elite. He does not rule out the use of military force. On the contrary: “There is only one thing worse than a military solution, and that . . . is a nuclear armed Iran.”[3]

The US National Intelligence Estimate of December 2007, which determined that Iran apparently suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003, did not substantially change McCain’s approach. He claims that Tehran still constitutes a threat due to its involvement in international terror and its support of “Hamas and Hezbollah, terror organizations bent on the destruction of Israel.”[4] However, he identifies less urgency in the matter, and hopes that it may be possible to hold talks between the countries, though without the United States providing President Ahmadinejad a propaganda opportunity, especially if does not receive anything in return.

Obama is more moderate on Iran than McCain, emphasizes the use of diplomacy, and is even planning direct talks with Iran (initially at a low government level). On the other hand, he too does not rule out the military option, which would enjoy more extensive support if it is adopted only after the United States has already proven that it has made every diplomatic effort. Obama defines Iran as “a genuine threat to the United States and Israel,”[5] and Ahmadinejad’s administration as “a threat to all of us.”[6] He too recognizes the dangerous implications of nuclear weapons in Iran’s possession for regional stability. Obama initiated a law designed to help US states withdraw investments by companies that trade with Iran. On the other hand, he did not support the decision that called for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to be defined as a terror organization as he saw this as an overly belligerent approach that might provide the Bush administration with the basis for launching an attack on Iran.

In general, Obama criticizes not only the Bush administration but also McCain and Clinton for their militant and aggressive rhetoric. In interviews he is not prepared to relate to the possibility that diplomacy and sanctions could fail, and claims that escalating rhetoric of saber wielding and cowboy diplomacy should be avoided until a serious and direct effort has been fully exhausted.[7]
McCain supported launching the war in Iraq and subsequent US efforts to stabilize the country, despite criticizing the strategy as too weak until a decision was made in early 2007 to reinforce the troops. He believes that exiting Iraq now and even setting a timetable for the withdrawal would be tantamount to admitting defeat. It would be “a mistake of colossal historical proportions” that would lead to catastrophic results for the Middle East: civil war in Iraq, a strengthening of Iran’s standing, unsettlement of regional equilibrium, a strengthening of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and a greater threat to Israel.[8] On the other hand, a US victory in Iraq means a functional country (even if with a flawed democracy) that cooperates with the United States in a long struggle against terror. McCain recently claimed that "we now have a great opportunity, not only to bring stability and freedom to Iraq, but . . . gain a strong, stable, democratic ally against terrorism and a strong ally against an aggressive and radical Iran."[9]

McCain’s support for continuing military action and increasing American forces in Iraq almost destroyed his chance of earning the Republican presidential nomination. This obstacle weakened in the summer of 2007 following the military success of the surge strategy. His persistence with this issue also helped to enhance his image as a person who sticks to his beliefs, who does not zigzag like other politicians in keeping with public opinion surveys. McCain also attacks Obama for his support for leaving Iraq. He argues that the United States should continue fighting as long as necessary and invest considerable resources in order to achieve a favorable result. After the fighting ends, it should leave a military force there (like in South Korea), even for the next hundred years. The possibility of leaving reduced army forces now, he says, will endanger the American soldiers who will be exposed to terror attacks and will find themselves in the middle of a civil war and genocide. In such a situation, the United States will apparently have to recall its soldiers and pay a heavy price in human life. Therefore, if McCain is elected president the American soldiers are expected to stay en masse in Iraq, and for a long time.

Obama has opposed the war in Iraq since it began (even before he was elected senator), and he mentions this record regularly. He has claimed many times that“invading and occupying a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attack was the wrong way to respond to the unconventional challenges by al-Qaeda and Islamic extremism.”[10] Obama believes that the United States’ security situation has deteriorated since 2003, as the invasion and occupation of Iraq have led to the strengthening of international terror, including in Iran, al-Qaeda, Hizbollah, Hamas, and the Taliban. He blasts the economic price of the war as too high, thereby damaging the US economy, increasing the United States’ monetary dependence on foreign capital, and in turn damaging national security.[11] The surge strategy that started in 2007 is not successful. While it has led to a decrease in the number of victims and terror attacks, "the surge is not the solution to Iraq's problems because it is not achieving the political benchmarks that were the stated purpose of our troop increase."[12] Obama promised that as president, he will start to withdraw American troops from Iraq immediately and continue over the following year and a half. At the end of the process a reduced force would remain there to protect Americans in Iraq, train Iraqi security forces, and carry out operations against al-Qaeda. Some of the soldiers will move from Iraq to Afghanistan, based on the correct order of priority for combating terror.

Obama, who has claimed on many occasions that there is no military solution for Iraq, stresses the importance of using diplomatic means in order to achieve stability in the country. He believes that by utilizing a regional and international initiative, it is possible to help the Iraqis end the civil war and prevent a humanitarian crisis and regional conflict. This approach will help the United States rehabilitate its standing in the Middle East, which was harmed by its involvement in an unjustified war “not based on reason, but on politics.”[13] Such a diplomatic initiative will also include dialogue with Iran and Syria, in the spirit of the Baker-Hamilton report.
Israel and the Palestinians
McCain is a veteran supporter of Israel. He believes that Israel is America's"natural ally in what is a titanic struggle against Islamic extremists,” and that the “bond between the United States and Israel is not only strategic…but also moral.”[14] McCain promised that as president he will work to strengthen America’s commitment to Israel’s security, and will continue to provide it with arms and technology that will maintain its military supremacy in the region. He sees Hamas as a terror organization and an ally of Iran with which, until it recognizes Israel’s existence, the US and Israel should not negotiate. He asserts that no sovereign state can accept repeated terror attacks on its territory and citizens, and thus he supports the action Israel takes against Hamas and other terror organizations in the Gaza Strip. McCain has even said that Israel should not be pressed into any negotiations as long as terror exists. He favors talks with Abu Mazen, but cautions that the Palestinian president's control is limited. In an address to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC he said that "America’s unequivocal support for Israel – not evenhandedness, not moral equivalence, not winking at Palestinian violence – is the best guarantor of peace in the Middle East.”[15] Regarding a permanent settlement with the Palestinians, McCain declared that he does not believe Israel should return to the 1967 borders.

McCain often mentions the Iranian threat looming over Israel, and thus his support of Israel extends beyond the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He believes that Syria and Hizbollah constitute a serious threat; Hizbollah should be disarmed and Syria’s involvement in Lebanon should be ended. He even cautions that "neither the Lebanese Army nor the international force there is prepared or willing to take on Hezbollah.”[16]
Since Obama was elected to the Senate and through his presidential campaign, he has also expressed his support for Israel in its struggle against terror. He defines Israel as “the United States’ strongest ally in the region, and the only democracy there”; he is committed to Israel’s security, including by maintaining its military superiority; he sees Hamas as “a terror organization devoted to the idea of destroying the State of Israel,”[17] and therefore does not comprise a legitimate partner to negotiations until it changes its attitude. Obama supports a two-state solution and is “committed to making every effort to help Israel achieve peace,” but will not force a settlement on it; he opposes a Palestinian right of return.[18]

These positions and his voting history in the Senate place Obama at the heart of the traditional pro-Israeli consensus in America. However, his overall record offers a less rosy picture from Israel’s point of view. In all matters relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Obama expresses an evenhanded position, which is striking in its contrast with the American political landscape. After the failure of the Camp David summit he criticized the Clinton administration for its unconditional and unilateral support of Israel. He used the expression “cycle of violence" instead of the expression generally used among supporters of Israel, “Palestinian violence and Israeli response.”[19] In the past, he has said that “no one is suffering more than the Palestinian people.” (He later excused the remark as said in the context of the Palestinians suffering from the failure of their leaders to recognize Israel). He promised to apply pressure to both sides in order to achieve tangible progress in the political process. He outlined that his administration will ask Israel to shoulder part of the responsibility to change the status quo and he will help “Israelis to identify and strengthen those partners who are truly committed to peace.”[20] Obama is the only candidate who has not expressed support for the security fence, which he described as “another example of the neglect of this administration in brokering peace.”[21]

Another indication of Obama’s future policy is his team of advisors, which includes prominent liberals who focus on human rights, global development, and international cooperation. This stream also sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israeli intransigence as the central problem in the Middle East (rather than radical Islam or Iran). The senior members of his staff include Tony Lake, Clinton’s national security advisor, who was not a strong supporter of Israel; Samantha Power, a specialist on genocide who argues that the United States must not be unilateral in its support of Israel;[22] and General Merrill McPeak, who believes that one problem with US policy in the Middle East is the exaggerated influence of the Jews of the United States.[23] While Obama distances himself from such statements, pointing out that no leader always agrees with all his advisors’ opinions, it is nonetheless highly probable that as president, the advisors and at least the atmosphere in his administration will match the left wing-liberal milieu of the Democratic Party, which pays more attention to the rights of the Palestinians than to Israel’s security needs, as part of an overall view of the United States’ global order of priority.
General Assessment
The election campaign highlights the differences and common areas between the parties and candidates. Everyone talks about a foreign policy that combines idealism and realism, values and strength, and the United States’ duty to support democracy around the world. Interestingly, both McCain and Lake, a senior advisor to Obama, support the creation of a League of Democracies that will unite the democratic countries in action when United Nations efforts fail. Furthermore, the hawkish McCain talks about multilateralism, about the need to invest considerably in an informational-conceptual effort in order to combat “the hearts and minds” around the world, and about channeling substantial resources for civilian-economic-social action alongside the war on terror. On the other hand, even the liberal Democrat Obama supports a significant increase in the size of the military, and mentions the duty of the president to use force when protecting American national interests, even without international support if there is no choice. There is no dichotomous division here, rather differences – some significant – of emphases and balances.

The Iranian issue clearly reflects the common areas and the differences between the parties. Like their Democratic rivals, the Republicans prefer diplomacy, nor do the Democrats rule out the use of force as a last option. The immediate difference between them is with regard to direct dialogue with or without preconditions (suspension of the nuclear program), and their tone also implies a difference with regard to their patience before a military option is used. Asked whether during his administration Iran would obtain a nuclear capability, Obama answers that “I will work to the best of my ability” or “I am committed to making every effort”; McCain simply says it won’t happen.

There is a clear cut difference between the two parties on Iraq. Over 60 percent of Republicans feel that the American army should stay in Iraq until the country is stabilized; only 10 percent of Democrats agree with this. The Republicans talk about how to win in Iraq while the Democrats talk about how to get out, but even they do not commit to a complete military disengagement. As president, McCain would leave the US military in Iraq until success is secured, if conditions on the ground and in Congress, which is expected to remain under Democratic control, allow for this. As president, Obama would initiate a diplomatic effort that would also incorporate Iran and Syria, while immediately starting a gradual withdrawal of forces from Iraq.

A difference is also expected to come to the fore on the matter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. McCain would maintain Bush’s line, probably without the religious, emotional, and personal elements that made his strong support of Israel exaggerated among portions of American public opinion. Obama, on the other hand, would likely inject a sense of urgency to the political process, and would display less patience over what is viewed as foot dragging by Israel in implementing its commitments according to the roadmap (significant removal of army roadblocks, evacuation of outposts, freeze of settlement construction).

Who, then, is "good for Israel"? That depends on the beholder. Those who believe that Israel requires a US administration that does not pressure it into following a path that it does not want to take, and is committed to stopping the Iranian danger through military means, if necessary, will prefer McCain over Obama. Those who feel that Israel needs a US administration that will impose a direction on it that it might otherwise not pursue, and that the danger of a nuclear empowered Iran does not necessitate the use of military force will prefer Obama over McCain. Nevertheless, there is a word of caution for members of the latter group. While Obama allows himself to express relatively balanced positions at the election campaign stage, it is possible that after he is elected, his policy will reflect his original critical positions. In this context one should remember the expression of support Obama received – and subsequently repudiated – from a Hamas spokesperson. Even though the Democrat candidate distanced himself from this endorsement and claimed that Hamas misunderstood his stances, it is easy to understand where the support comes from. Hamas realizes that Obama is more attentive to the claims of the Palestinians and is less supportive of the use of force (American or Israeli.

The future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict depends more on what happens between the sides than the extent and nature of the involvement of any US administration. On the other hand, the continued presence of the US in Iraq almost entirely depends on the next US administration. Indeed, a decision on the withdrawal of the American army is an individual decision by the president; Bush’s success in withstanding the pressure of the Democratic majority in Congress proves this. The way in which the United States deals with the Iranian danger, through more effective diplomacy and/or implementing the military option, mainly depends on Washington. The president can also decide on his own to launch an aerial attack on Iran, as opposed to a land-based invasion. It seems, then, perhaps more than in other elections, that the particular Democrat or Republican who will enter the White House will to a large extent shape the future of the Middle East.


[1] CNN, April 19, 2007.
[2]John McCain Addresses the Christians United for Israel, July 18, 2007.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Concord Monitor, December 8, 2007.
[5] New York Times, March 14, 2007.
[6] Remarks by Senator Barack Obama, AIPAC Policy Forum, March 2, 2007.
[7] For example, see an interview published in the New York Times on November 1, 2007.
[8] New York Times, August 21, 2007.
[9]Remarks by John McCain to the Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), April 7, 2008.
[10] Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Foreign Policy Forum.
[11] Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: The Cost of War.
[12] See here.
[13] Council on Foreign Relations, October 2, 2007.
[14]  Jerusalem Post, May 24, 2007; and McCain addresses Christians United for Israel, July 17, 2007.
[15] Quoted in Jewish Press, May 17, 2006.
[16] McCain addresses Christians United for Israel, July 17, 2007.
[17] Guardian Unlimited, March 5, 2007; New York Sun, March 21, 2007.
[18] Yediot Aharonot, February 29, 2008.
[19] Foreign Policy in Focus, January 11, 2008.
[20] Foreign Affairs, July/August 2007.
[21] Chicago Jewish News, December 3, 2004.
[22] Power resigned in February 2008 after she called Clinton “a monster.”
[23] The Oregonian, March 27, 2003.
The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.

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