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Obama Distances Himself from Book on U.S.-Israeli Relations

Alec MacGillis

Like many in Washington, Barack Obama is running as fast as he can from the authors of a controversial new book on U.S.-Israeli politics. And in doing so, he's taking a distinctly different path than one of his highest-profile supporters in the foreign policy establishment, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

After being alerted by a reporter for the New York Sun, the Obama campaign raced yesterday to take down a small ad for the campaign's Web site that appeared as one of several "sponsored links" on the page for "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" by John Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The book argues that a highly influential assortment of pro-Israeli politicians, journalists and academics have succeeded in pushing U.S. policy in the Middle East in directions that do not necessarily serve America's best interests. And, like an article by the authors that appeared last year, the book has caused a considerable stir -- critics have accused the authors of anti-Semitism, admirers have praised them for needed candor, and several institutions and organizations have turned down or canceled appearances by the authors, including the Graduate Center at the City University of New York and, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.0912 08

The Obama campaign says its ad probably appeared on the book's Amazon page simply because the campaign paid for its Web site to be mentioned on searches that included the word "politics," among other phrases, part of a publicity strategy being used by many 2008 candidates. Though the ad's link to the book was clearly unintentional, the campaign may be sensitive to any appearance of an anti-Israel tilt given that Obama had already met with a skeptical response among some Jewish voters this year.

Obama encountered scattered grumbles in March at a pro-Israel conference in Washington, where attendees expressed concerns about Obama's comment, made in Iowa shortly before the conference, that "Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.'' At the conference, he got more attention with his observation, referring to the Middle East peace process, that "the biggest enemy I think we have in this whole process ... one of the enemies we have to fight -- it's not just terrorists, it's not just Hezbollah, it's not just Hamas -- it's also cynicism." At another conference in Washington in April, of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Obama chose his words carefully, while still seeking to show that he was not satisfied with the status quo in Israel: "My commitment to you is unwavering," he said in response to a question about Israel, "but the only thing I will not do is to relinquish the possibility that our Middle East policy involves more than just arms sales and military and strategic options to consider. There has to be an effective diplomacy."

There would be no such nuance from Obama when confronted with the Amazon ad. Campaign spokesman Jennifer Psaki told The Sun that Obama had not read the book but knew enough about it to disagree with its authors. "The ad has been removed from the site because the views of the book do not reflect the views of Senator Obama on the U.S.- Israel relationship," she said. "Senator Obama has stated that his support for a strong U.S.- Israel relationship, which includes both a commitment to Israel's security and to helping Israel achieve peace with its neighbors, comes from his belief that it's the right policy for the United States. The idea that supporters of Israel have somehow distorted U.S. foreign policy, or that they are responsible for the debacle in Iraq, is just wrong."


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As it happens, though, among the few establishment figures who have spoken more kindly of Mearsheimer and Walt is Brzezinski, the former Carter Administration national security adviser who last month made headlines with his endorsement of Obama. Brzezinski praised Obama for offering a "new face, a new sense of direction, a new definition of America's role in the world," giving the junior senator from Illinois a strong boost of credibility in the foreign policy department. He is expected to be at Obama's side tomorrow in Iowa when the senator gives what is being billed as a major speech addressing Gen. David Petraeus' report on the war in Iraq.

In the July-August 2006 issue of Foreign Policy, Brzezinski defended Mearsheimer and Walt, saying their article had "rendered a public service by initiating a much-needed public debate on the role of the 'Israel lobby' in the shaping of U.S. foreign policy" and that they "adduce a great deal of factual evidence that over the years Israel has been the beneficiary of privileged -- indeed, highly preferential -- financial assistance, out of all proportion to what the United States extends to any other country." Of those attacking the authors, Brzezinski wrote, "Of course, stifling such debate is in the interest of those who have done well in the absence of it. Hence the outraged reaction from some to Mearsheimer and Walt."

The Obama campaign tonight dismissed questions about squaring Obama's spurning of the book's authors with Brzezinski's strong defense of them against the "outraged reaction" of critics. An Obama supporter, Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida, offered a statement in defense of Obama, saying Obama has "been a consistent supporter of Israel and this is an unfortunate case of a fabricated controversy for political reasons."

"I speak with him often on Israel policy," Wexler added, "and I can tell you firsthand that Barack Obama is opposed to the arguments presented in this book."

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